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.
Feature continues here: The Tribal Psychology of Football