David Calling

Our Ritual Lives

Every four years, with the regularity of American presidential elections, the World Football competition is held (soccer, that is), and once again it is about to come to a climax in Germany, the current host country. It’s a rich field for the sociologist and the anthropologist.


First of all the rituals of the players. Every one of them, from all competing countries, spits whenever he fails to score a goal or suffers some major disappointment of the kind, and television cameras revel in showing this incivility. The player who does score first pulls at his shirt to reveal his midriff, then races to some corner of the field and throws himself face-down on the ground, whereupon his team-mates all pile on top. Sportsmanlike modesty is nowhere. The losers then weep and the cameras revel in that too.
Then the rituals of the fans. In theory, they come from all over the world, thus representing different countries and cultures. Yet they all behave the same. The rhythmical beating of drums in the stand, and the mass chanting, sound identical. They drape themselves in national flags, and paint national colors on their faces, and wear the same varieties of funny head-gear. What might have been different instead becomes an undifferentiated mass.
William James famously wanted what he called “the moral equivalent of war.” Perhaps this is it. Perhaps it is today’s equivalent of the bread and circuses that Roman emperors used to lay on to divert the masses. Perhaps it is only a clever mass-marketing ploy — one supermarket boasted that it had ordered an extra million bottles of champagne in anticipation of victory. But those strange rituals also suggest that what we have all got to look forward to is a gigantic tribalism that grew out of nowhere.


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