In sporting terms, America is very much an island with its own quaint customs. For this reason the etymologically unsound American version of “football”—the world’s most popular sport—mainly consists of throwing a non-spherical object by hand while swathed in body armor. American “soccer” superficially resembles football, with the added dimension of anxious US “soccer moms” who push their youngsters into a sport whose reliance on large open spaces minimizes participation by “ghetto kids.”
Despite the similarities, American soccer and football as it is played in the rest of the world are two entirely different sports. In American soccer, tribalism consists of keeping unwanted tribes out of soccer altogether. But the international version of football is innately tribal, with almost every major city divided into rival fan groups whose main purpose in life seems to be baiting, demeaning, and belittling their rivals.
This was demonstrated in the recent “friendly” match played in London between Scotland and Brazil, where once again tribalism and race leaped to the fore.
A Scottish dye worker named Tom Donohue first brought the game to Brazil back in 1894. Brazil would rise to preeminence among the developed footballing nations, winning five World Cups. But with a population of nearly 200 million, their success is based on a much larger talent pool than its main rivals: Germany (81 million), Italy (60 million), and Argentina (40 million).
The recent game in London ended in a 2-0 victory for Brazil, with their teenage mulatto striker Neymar netting both goals against the Scots while apparently balancing a ferret on his head. Brazil’s brilliance is not based on their much-touted funky ethnic mishmash but simply on vast numbers of players from which to choose. Here as elsewhere, demographics are destiny.
As is common in football, the actual game—a dull victory with the favorite overcoming a cautious and defensive underdog—was overshadowed by non-footballing events. After the final whistle, Neymar complained that he had been jeered at throughout the game and that someone had thrown a banana onto the pitch.
Around the world, throwing a banana onto a football pitch is edible semantic shorthand for insinuating an opponent’s affinity with apes. The Scots, who pride themselves on their hirsute, eccentrically dressed, but extremely well-behaved fans—in contrast to the neighboring English, who are notorious for male-pattern baldness and hooliganism—instantly made efforts to distance themselves from the racist banana. This led to equally racist claims that an Englishman was responsible and, more humorously, that no self-respecting Scot would let a piece of fruit anywhere near his body.
One of the best examples of football’s tribalism is Glasgow, where Rangers FC draws its support from the city’s monarchist Protestant elements, while Celtic FC attracts the Catholics and republicans. Many Celtic fans are also descendants of Irish immigrants who identify with Sinn Fein and the IRA, while the Rangers faithful root for Ulster’s loyalist paramilitaries. Because of perceived similarities between the IRA and groups such as the PLO, Celtic fans took to waving Palestinian flags at their matches a few years ago. In a ridiculous tit-for-tat, Rangers fans responded by flaunting Israeli banners.
Americans are sure to find this all very bewildering, but a trawl around the world’s soccer grounds will only reinforce their culture shock, turning up instances of monkey chanting, Nazi salutes, Holocaust references (used against teams suspected of having Jewish fans), banners emblazoned with “Death to Arabs,” and celebrations of disasters such as the 1958 airplane crash that killed half of the Manchester United team.
The world’s footballing grounds might appear to be dark and disturbing places unless you have faith in group catharsis and realize that most people are unlikely to behave in their daily lives the way they chant in stadiums. Indeed, stopping such behavior at the stadium might cause it to emerge in their daily lives.
Ostentatiously taunting the opposition is all part of the game and should not be taken too seriously. The same Chelsea supporters who once chanted “Hitler’s not dead, he’s the leader of the Shed” (Chelsea’s ground) were quite happy when Roman Abramovich took over the club and spent a fortune on top players. Likewise, the same supporters who throw bananas at their opponent’s “darkie” players worship their own sable geniuses when they score. Racism is not always racism, unless you’re a soccer mom moving heaven and Earth to stop junior from getting hooked on the NBA.
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