What the World Cup Teaches Us About Psychology

Sometimes conflict brings us together.

Posted Jun 25, 2018

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The 2006 championship game of the World Cup soccer tournament featured France versus Italy, a classic matchup. The game’s drama began early. In the fifth minute, the referee awarded France a penalty kick for the takedown of French striker Thierry Henry by Italian defender Marco Materazzi. The result was a face-off between Italian goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, regarded as one of the greatest ever goalkeepers, and French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest ever attacking players. Zidane made good on the penalty attempt. France up, 1-0.

Within 15 minutes, the Italians equalized on a header by Materazzi serviced by an Andrea Pirlo corner kick, tying the game. The match was tense, but nothing out of the ordinary for a high-stakes championship. The score remained tied until the end of 90 minutes of regulation, sending the match into overtime. 

The big moment came in the 110th minute of the game. The precise details of this encounter are a matter of soccer legend, but I’ll relate what happened as best I can. Zidane purportedly taunted Materazzi, "If you want my jersey, I'll give it to you at the end of the match.” This was Zidane’s final game as a professional soccer player. He was going into the history books as a legend of French soccer. Accordingly, he figured Materazzi might appreciate a souvenir in much same way that a 12-year-old fan in the stands might appreciate one. Materazzi recalled the event years later, "You see on the images that he's talking to me. I asked him two times to repeat himself to be sure that I understood. The third time I responded because I understood that he was making fun of me.” Materazzi felt that the jab was unfair. After all, they were both goal scorers in the hotly contested match at hand. What exactly was said next nobody knows for sure save for Materazzi and Zidane. Supposedly, Materazzi made a declaration concerning Zidane’s family. “Your sister is a terrorist,” is what lip-readers deduced afterward from the video. Whatever the content of the message, it inspired Zidane to trot a few yards past Materazzi, about face, rear back, and bash his forehead enthusiastically into Materazzi’s sternum, felling the Italian. 

Not only does Zidane headbutt the guy, but he does it in front of 700 million viewers during overtime in one of the biggest games of his career. The baseball equivalent would be if Derek Jeter, in the ninth inning in game seven of the World Series, were to take a break from base running, sneak up behind the pitcher, and give him a good old fashion pantsing for the viewing pleasure of God and everyone, all immediately before announcing his retirement. Zidane was sent off with a red card, and Italy went on to win the game, along with the World Cup, in a penalty shootout. 

Social psychologists used to think that the way conflict works was like what happened between Zidane and Materazzi. They thought that conflict was an interpersonal problem. Zidane held something against Materazzi as an individual. Then conflict arose as a manifestation of those feelings. This account of conflict, on the face of it, makes sense. Why else would you act aggressively toward someone else unless you had something against them personally? Then in the 1970s a social psychologist named Henri Tajfel came along and questioned this account. He thought that such cases were the exception, not the rule.

Tajfel argued that conflict often had nothing to do with interpersonal relationships. Instead, it is more often inspired by group affiliation. Take soccer, for instance. The entire premise of a soccer match is conflict. One team wins at the expense of the other. But the conflict has nothing to do with how the players relate to each other as individuals. A professional soccer player has two allegiances: one to country, and the other to club. Zidane, for example, played for France in the World Cup. However, he played a part of his club career at the Italian club team Juventus. That means that in one context, where what matters is nationality, he plays against the Italian goalkeeper Buffon. But in another contact, when club matters, they are on the same side. Their conflict isn’t explained by interpersonal factors. It can only be understood as an intergroup relation. 

While some conflicts certainly can be understood in interpersonal terms, most of the worst ones are group affairs. “It can be assumed,” writes Tajfel, “that the more intense is an intergroup conflict, the more likely it is that the individuals who are members of the opposing groups will behave toward each other as a function of their respective memberships, rather than in terms of their individual characteristics or inter-individual characteristics.” When we go to war, it isn’t with individuals but with groups. 

The World Cup leverages this same spirit of intergroup conflict. And in the heat of the moment in a tense game, this is what we see: nation opposing nation. But that’s not all there is to it. If we shift our focus back to the interpersonal, what we see is people from many different backgrounds coming together to celebrate the same event, the same sport, and the same spirit of competition. When else can you see a Peruvian, a Moroccan, and a Russian in the same room, all excited about the same thing? The beauty of the World Cup is that in an apparent intergroup war of all against all, we find the warmest of interpersonal relationships among individuals who would otherwise have nothing in common. That’s a great thing. And perhaps it’s something we could do with a bit more of in America today. 

References

Tajfel, H. (1981). Human groups and social categories: Studies in social psychology.

Maasdorp, J. (2016, July 20). Zidane's headbutt 10 years on: The hit that shocked the football world. Retrieved July 25, 2018, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-20/zinedine-zidane-headbutt-10-years-on-marco-materazzi/7645460

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