Updated: Feb 3
“A group of men (sic) chasing a bit of leather around a field”. That from my grandfather who was unimpressed by football (soccer).
But why is football adored around the world? Why do disparate cultures adopt it so readily (I have played football with locals in both Saudi Arabia and Israel)?
Why are billions spent on building football teams? And billions more on stadia – the modern-day temples – within which fans gather to worship them?
I think football has deep anthropological roots.
A celebration of teamwork
Let’s start with a broader appreciation of sport.
Jordan Peterson reminds us that sport is, at its roots, a replacement for the ancient human activity of hunting and he uses football as an example:
You have a projectile (the ball), and you have a team of “hunters” whose job it is to get the projectile into the back of the net (the hunted).
Football, for players and followers alike, is about teamwork, community and (sometimes controversially) tribalism.
Teamwork, like (and dependent upon) our ability to tell stories (see below), is what separates us from other animals. The ability to communicate with each other verbally and non-verbally in order to achieve an agreed upon goal is a key human attribute. Football, and other team sports, is a celebration of team spirit and group endeavour: Victory is never sweeter than when achieved with a bunch of friends, but it is because of your friends that you won the game.
A celebration of the pre-frontal cortex
Of course on the surface, football really is “a group of men (and/or women) chasing a bit of leather around a field”.
But this in itself is a far more wonderful thing than my grandfather appreciated!
It’s an example of how humans can sit down together and think up rules to a game they will play in the future. Other animals, can’t do this.
As Yuval Noah Harari explains, one of the pivotal aspects of what makes us human is the ability to tell stories. We are story-telling beings, and without stories we wouldn’t have games or money or business entities or religion, the very bastions upon which societies are built (for better or worse).
With the boundaries defined by its rules, football provides an environment within which our natural aggression can be channelled in a controlled manner, and in a way that can be appreciated by those who buy into the story.
Before such team sports we had gladiators in the Roman Empire, ripping each other's heads off and getting mauled by wild animals, attracting crowds that also filled stadium-like buildings. That was a bit heavy. Football – and all other modern-day sports – provides a gentler outlet for human aggression.
With its global appeal, it is the poster child of human concord, albeit with the edge of tribalism thrown in now and again.
Football brings people together (the World Cup is the obvious example) in order to participate in the chasing of a bit of leather around a field surrounded by tens of thousands of followers, along with millions more remote onlookers, emotionally engaged because they believe in and agree upon the rules, a story, concocted by, and housed within, the pre-frontal cortex.
A celebration of the human form
Elites enjoy ballet. I think football is ballet for the masses.
The skill involved in twisting and turning the body, and not falling over whilst simultaneously manipulating a spherical object without using your hands can only be appreciated by those who have tried to reach even some basic level of mastery.
I bet the overwhelming majority of people who are scornful about football are either bad at it or have never tried it themselves.
They don’t know what it’s like to trap a ball under the foot from a long pass or “juggle” a ball in the air with their feet, knees and head or pass a ball accurately to a teammate. Let alone slam a screamer into the top corner of the goal!
Just by trying to do these “simple” things, one can gain an appreciation of what footballers do.
Footballers aren’t known for their intellectual prowess. Their intelligence is expressed in a different way: body form, proprioception, spatial awareness, tactical positioning, and coordination.
It is almost exactly the same kind of intelligence ballet dancers embody. Ballet dancers are live sculptures, a celebration of the human form. So are footballers.
A celebration of the foot, our connection to Earth
Because the world seems flat to us, we think of ourselves as upright bipeds “walking” around with a clear sense of up and down.
But consider the fact that we are situated on a sphere (Earth) in space, where there is no up or down.
When we acknowledge this perspective, we can re-frame ourselves in a different light: not as upright bipeds “walking” around a flat surface, but rather brains hanging off the surface of a sphere with two tentacle-like extensions as primary stabilisers (legs with feet) and another two tentacle-like extensions used for feeling and manipulating objects (arms with hands).
The brain – the main computer – along with the primary sensors (eyes, ears, nose, mouth) have been bunched up together in a package we call the head.
The head is situated as far away from the surface of the sphere as possible, probably selected for in order to gain sensory advantage over surroundings and thus optimising our chances of staying out of harm’s way as well as seeking prey.
We think our reality has a floor (the ground) below us, and a sky above us because that’s how the environment has shaped our perceptions over the eons.
But one could also say that we hang off Earth, glued to it by gravity, and the sky is what’s below us – an ocean we never fall into. The surface of the Earth is the ceiling that we keep on bouncing off of, in order to move around, much like a helium balloon bobbing off the ceiling of a room.
The primary stabilisers (legs with feet) are, in a way, sacred to humans in that they not only prohibit us from crashing down (or up) to Earth but they are the appendages that are (mostly) directly in contact with Earth when we move around. They are perpetually in contact with the very soil and rock from which we evolved.
The foot is the feeling mechanism with which we manoeuvre ourselves.
It's a highly sensitive node. In both the foot and the ankle combined, there are 26 bones; 33 joints; and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments (tendons are fibrous tissues that connect muscles to bones and ligaments are fibrous tissues that connect bones to other bones).
This degree of complexity in such a small area of the body is understandable when you consider the importance of navigating safely across the Earth’s surface – staying “upright” on unpredictable terrain.
It is our primary point of sensory dialogue with Earth – the channel of communication between Earth and our body and thus a primordial reminder of what we essentially are: the Earth, the Sun, the Solar System.