french soccer fan 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
The passions aroused by the World Cup Football Championship demand an explanation. Mine is that team sports are a form of sublimated war.
Individual sports are another matter. Individual contests are often overtly violent, as in boxing, fencing, or shooting; or involve pitting yourself directly against others - or even yourself - as in track and field, mountain climbing and weight lifting.
The archetype that underlies these activities is the lonely hero, who sets out to prove him or herself.
Team sports are different. In all team sports, there are restrictions on excessive violence, or often a complete ban on violence altogether.
Football (soccer) is a case in point. The emotional atmosphere is one of intense rivalry and aggression, but clear limits are placed. Use of hands, our main weapon of violence, is forbidden altogether.
Excessive roughness is severely punished, especially in the contact sports like hockey or American football. In most team sports, like football (soccer), each team has its own territory. Each team has its own net, which is the symbol of its vulnerability. The playing field is not only even and perfectly symmetrical - each side is trying to do exactly the same thing to the other.
And in archetypal terms, what are they trying to do?
These team sports represent a civilized and sublimated form of primitive warfare in which the goal is to enter enemy territory, overwhelm their defenses and ravish their women.
The first two claims seem unexceptional, and the passions of sports equal if not surpass those of war. From this point of view, the fanatic view - and recall "fan" is short for "fanatic" - of "winning is not the most important thing, it is the only thing" begins to make sense. In war, winning is the only thing that counts.
BUT MY claim that the net represents feminine vulnerability calls for explanation. Nets are containers and symbolically, containers represent the feminine. Women are baby holders both inside and outside the womb. The ball, small, mobile, travels great distances with only one goal in mind, to pass through the defense and enter the net/ovum. The relative size of ball to net parallels that of sperm to ovum. Scoring (and here the sexual double entendre can be heard loud and clear) brings triumph to one side and theoretical dishonor to the other.
In cultures with a primitive level of technology, warfare usually takes the form of raiding parties into enemy territory. There is often limited overt violence and rarely is a death extracted. These raiding parties do not occupy enemy territory as do "civilized armies," nor extract precious goods and metals. Yet they need to show themselves, and their enemies, some sign of having been there. That sign might be some wanton destruction, but could also be to steal or rape the women.
It is not coincidence that to rape a woman is to dishonor her, and her male kin who are supposed to protect her. From that perspective the team sport penetration of enemy territory and placing the ball into the net is a symbolic equivalent of forced intercourse.
Over time, raiding parties would keep score of victories and defeats, rather like the formal score keeping of civilized team sport. Team sports like fighting units are also a form of male bonding; success is based upon the same skills of physical fitness, cooperation and morale.
Football isn't just about life and death, goes the saying, it is far more important than that!
The life and death part is about winning and losing. Losing feels like death and the metaphors of "sudden death" or "being knocked out" or "crushed" all indicate the symbolic ground on which team sports lie.
But if winning is not the only thing, what can be more important?
The answer, I suggest, is honor. To win the game is to preserve honor; to lose is to be humiliated. This perspective explains how losing teams can still defend their honor by scoring a meaningless goal in the dying minutes of a contest or keep up morale until a bitter conclusion.
In primitive warfare, as in team sports, winning and preserving honor (and their opposite, not losing, and not being dishonored) are the archetypal basis of the tremendous libido unleashed by the game.
I am not suggesting that any of this actually occupies the thoughts of players or fans. Rather, players and fans are unconsciously acting out a pattern laid down long ago, that links penetrating enemy territory and penetrating enemy women and keeping score.
The passions unleashed by the World Cup derive from profound feelings of aggression and sexuality, enacted in a strictly nonaggressive and highly stylized manner. Unlike war which is overtly destructive, team sports allow full expression of our male bonding, aggressive and sexual impulses, but in a playful way so that the players do not have to pay the full price.
That being the case, the world will be a better place the day sports replace war.
The writer is an anthropologist, clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst. He is professor of behavioral science at the Sackler School of Medicine of Tel Aviv University.