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Watching the World Cup: The Tribal Psychology of Football

The dark roots of the beautiful game of soccer

While millions of people around the world are glued to their television screens to see which country will win the 2014 World Cup Football — soccer for US folks — in Brazil, as an evolutionary scientist my main interest is in the place that football occupies in the evolution of our species. How did football become so popular? Is football the new religion or a disguised form of warfare? Do football players have more sex and offspring than average? Is watching football good or bad for your physical and mental health? And, does it matter what tribal colors the football teams wear in the World Cup for predicting success?

The evolutionary origins of the beautiful game

First, let's look briefly at the history of football. We could go back to the end of the 19th century when the physical education teachers at the public schools in England were thinking of new ways to challenge the sons of the wealthy to improve their physical fitness and team skills. But to explain the origins of football we may have to go back a bit further in human history.

According to the British zoologist Desmond Morris football carries the features of an ancient hunting ritual. I very much doubt if this analysis is correct. Who are the hunters in football and who is the prey? And why would you need a good defense? A more probable evolutionary story is that football has its origins in the tradition of tribal warfare among our ancestors in which the male band members formed coalitions to weaker or destroy local rival bands. Former Dutch football coach Rinus Michels was exactly right when he claimed that football is like war.

You might wonder then why football did not develop much earlier than in 19th century England. For this, we need to look at New Guinea. Nowhere else in the world do so many different peoples and language groups live together in one circumscribed area. Until the 20th century, these tribes were constantly fighting tribal wars against each other and the slightest incident led to a tribal conflict with many deaths on both sides. Only when the missionaries arrived on the island, and the tribes handed in their deadly weapons did the opportunity arise for peaceful intergroup interactions. Now they are even playing football in New Guinea. Yet to avoid escalation of the conflict and warfare, the referee always ensures that games end in a draw, even when it means playing on.

Football is War

What is the evidence for the claim that football is a form of ritualized warfare which evolved from the ancient tribal disputes?

First, there are the well-known historical examples of international football matches leading to an armed conflict between neighboring countries. For instance, the war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 began after a runaway qualifier for the World Cup in Mexico. There were 2,000 deaths in the 100-hour war which only came to an end through an intervention of the United Nations.

This shows that football as a ritualized war is only possible through the interventions of a third party, the referee, otherwise it ends in serious and deadly conflict. The referee must always be from a different tribe than the teams and he must be a person of the highest integrity. Research shows further that referees must possess another quality: body height. Referees are on average longer than the linesmen, according to a study by Dutch psychologists. One reason is that in prehistoric times body length was an asset if a person wanted to intervene in a fight without risking injury. It seems that such ancestral cues still play a role in who emerges as arbitrator in a tribal dispute.

There is something else remarkable about height, which may suggest a long evolutionary history. Just like in the animal kingdom individuals on the winning side are bigger, for example, they raise their arms after a victory, while the losers are standing small, sometimes by hanging their heads in despair. This carries over to audiences. When athletes play well they are assessed as bigger than they actually are. This "big winner" effect is also found among politicians.

Tribal colors

If we look at the colors in which the football teams appear at the World Cup we see further evidence for our primal war instincts war. It appears that athletes and sports teams that are wearing the color red have an edge. This has been demonstrated in Olympic sports such as judo and boxing, where the athletes in red won more often than the athletes in blue, especially if they were quite matched on the basis of their pretournament rankings matched. In football we may also find the "red-winner effect.” Red is the most popular short color in football across the various European soccer leagues.

A speculative explanation for the red wins effect is that red is perceived as dangerous and intimidating by observers as it looks like someone is angry-faced. If our brain perceives red as dangerous then according to this argument countries like Spain, Chile and Portugal will have a decent chance at winning the World Cup with their reddish jerseys. An orange shirt (the Dutch team) will probably do better than a blue or green shirt (of course only if the teams are evenly matched). Blue and green are the colors of nature, and should have a calming effect on the players. Too bad for Argentina, Italy, and Uruguay!

 Hormones and fans

Another curious psychological phenomenon important for the World Cup is that spectators are not so different from the players in their experiences during the match, physically and mentally. That's likely because in ancestral times every spectator was automatically a participant in the tribal wars. So even if we look from a distance on the TV to football, our brain 'believes' that we are ourselves warriors on the pitch. This is supported by hormones research showing an increase among the fans of a winning team in their levels of testosterone, the male sex hormone, just like the winning players. In contrast, the fans of the losing team show a decrease in testosterone just like the defeated players. And when people watch a football game an increase in the stress hormone cortisol can be detected, especially among the diehard fans when things on the pitch get really intense.

We should raise the question whether watching football is healthy or not. On the field you can cope with the stress through a fight-flight response but this is different for the spectators. Dutch doctors went around various hospitals during the European Championships football in 1996 and they detected an increased risk of heart failure and mortality after the match Netherlands - France. The Netherlands lost this nail-biting match after a penalty shoot. There are also many anecdotes around the world telling of suicide attempts of fans after important World Cup games were lost by their country. However, statistics show that in most countries there are actually fewer suicides during World Cups, perhaps giving some people a good reason to carry on.

The biology of home advantage

A fourth proof that football originates from a warfare/conflict psychology is the well known home turf advantage which has been documented in many different sports. Again this plays a significant role at the World Cup (I am writing this blog one day after the organizing nation Brazil received a lucky penalty in their match against Croatia). In evolutionary biology there is a home advantage effect in animal conflict. That is not all that surprising because the individual who owns the territory has the most to lose. The intruder can make a new attempt get a territory elsewhere. Among ancestral tribes the defending tribes fought a little harder too. So this suggests there is a scientific explanation for why defending is easier than attacking, at least in football. In addition, a variety of local and cultural factors favor the home tribe, such as familiarity with the weather, eating habits, and of course a biased referee who may want to favor the home nation. On this issue, the distances that the tribes need to bridge to compete at the World Cup are really unparalleled in human history. The home advantage will therefore be so great that this World Cup is almost certainly going to a country in South America. Sorry Spain and Germany, no chance to win!

Male warriors

Finally, we cannot avoid addressing the male bias in the interest in the World Cup football. The tribal wars of the past were almost exclusively a male affair. Fighting the other tribes gave the men a stage to show how strong, fit, and brave they were. The winners received status, food, and sex. That may not be so different for the modern footballers. Just look at the WAGs , the 'wives and girlfriends of the World Cup players, who tend to be a little more physically attractive than the average player. This also shows that both sexes, men and women, are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the World Cup takes place this year. Watching these groups of men working up a sweat for their moment of glory is the end result of a brutal Darwinian struggle, called sexual selection, where one sex competes for the favors of the other sex. In that sense, the World Cup is nothing new under the (Brazilian) sun!

Mark van Vugt is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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