Question: Does patriotism still play a role in the World Cup?


The World Cup is an interesting tournament on many accounts; for one thing it involves football, the most popular sport on the planet (thus giving it a greater impact factor than say the Olympic Games) and then it is about national teams competing against each other making it symbolic of nationalism or patriotism. This is probably why some anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists and sociologists have argued that football has become a substitute to ancient war epics which helped males let off their testosterone charges and feel useful the best way they know how (i.e. by being agressive). In a world where wars don’t need so much blood and flesh anymore, football becomes a suitable battlefield for all sorts of conflicts: political, psychological, sociological, patriotic, nationalistic, religious even, you name it. Of course, philosophically, sport is meant to unify and help people transcend their tribal instincts by promoting noble traits such as fairplay, modesty, respect and endurance, but in reality and especially in hugely popular sports where lots of money is involved, the facts on the ground are often diametrically opposed to the philosophical ideal behind sport.

I was too young to be capable of any deep analysis of the 1982 World Cup performance of the Algerian national team, but it seems to me that back then, the patriotic spirit was more pronounced not only in our team but in all teams. Competing at the World Cup level meant playing for the flag more than anything else, money was not yet a motivating factor because the pay was dismal compared to what it is now. Concepts like glory, honor and pride held a significant proportion of a football player’s psyche. Perhaps when money is scarce, humans need myths such as these to help them sustain themselves otherwise than materialistically. I personally do not believe that these concepts are myths, but I understand the argument which claims they cannot be otherwise than myths, because in a certain worldview everything that cannot be quantified is a myth and if you define a myth as such then yes, abstract ideals are all myths.

Nowadays however, the World Cup has shifted a far distance away from idealistic sources of motivation. In almost all teams, players are paid huge sums prior to games to motivate them to give it their best and yet many can’t be bothered. In all teams, governments get involved and make of the national team a political manifesto thus wrecking the charm of sport as something that is symbolic of fairness, impartiality and justice even (perhaps it is too big a word for sport but in a certain way, a fair competition could be considered a manifestation of justice).This applies not only to the players themselves, but technical staff as well: for example, the way Domenech (the French team’s coach) has behaved (or rather not behaved) yesterday when his team was losing 2-0 to Mexico was very disturbing. For this particular coach, leading a football team seems to be about showing the country who’s the real boss.

As as a supporter find it tremendously hard to sense any patriotic motivation behind our players’ performance, in their matches against Egypt, there was some kind of fire that was felt from certain players, but am not sure now whether it was patriotic  as much as it was hateful of the opponent. Yes, I now think that what motivated our team to win against Egypt was pure hate for what they did and the way they treated our delegation (there is a long history of resentment between Egypt and North African teams) – it was a battle for honor. There is nothing wrong with hate as a motivating force, in fact it is fostered by many politicians and leaders in order to mobilize the otherwise naturally apathetic masses, but the problem is, in sport and at the national team level, it really shouldn’t be like this. These players are the role model for many young people whether we like it or not and they should be more conscious of this responsibility instead of what, they behave like immature overspoilt brats.

This is not an Algerian problem per se, it is the same for almost all teams apart from the US and the Asian teams maybe. For the US, everything is about winning and ‘God save America’, for the Asian teams, hard work is just a default setting perhaps due to their Confucian cultural heritage. The English are also prone to extreme outward signs of allegiance to their football team (otherwise known as hooliganism) but I doubt it is a sign of patriotism more than an opportunity to let go of their inhibition and let their hair (and sometimes other garments, one particularly distateful instance of which is referred to as ‘mooning‘) down in an explosive way (they do it also as tourists and in all sorts of contexts with the help of the odious amounts of liquor they imbibe). I suppose modern Algerian fans behave similarly to the hooligans because of the huge levels of frustration they undergo living in modern day Algeria (which is interestingly enough and in many aspects better off materialistically than 1982 Algeria).

I am not sure what place if any patriotism still holds in tournaments like the World Cup, I think it is almost exclusively a matter of professional advancement and financial gain now. Not that it is illegitimate, but it is disappointing because there’s lots of opportunity for that kind of thing at the club level. The World Cup should be in my view about playing for the flag and the flag alone. And then maybe, just maybe, we could see Algeria bringing the World Cup home one of these days.

What do you think?

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