The Aging of “The Soccer Tribe”: A Tale of Socio-biology

By | July 17th, 2017 | No Comments



This post was originally published on Andrew Guest’s Sports and Ideas Tumbler page. It is cross-posted here with permission of the author.



I recently stumbled across a new (2016) edition of The Soccer Tribe by Desmond Morris, the peculiar tome originally published in 1981 with a mix of text and illustrations making a case for what amounts to an evolutionary  socio-biology of soccer. Morris, most famous for The Naked Ape, explains that he was motivated by anthropological curiosity: “Hardly anyone seems to query the importance attached to the game. For those who do the kicking and those who watch it so avidly, the whole matter is taken for granted. Football is football, and of course it is fascinating, so what is there to question? For those who ignore it, it is plainly a stupid waste of time, so why bother with it? It is not worth discussing. Both sides overlook the fact that, viewed objectively, it is one of the strangest patterns of human behaviour to be seen in the whole of modern society.”

In seven sections and 44 chapters full of pictures, illustrations, and quirky charts, Morris then lays out an analysis of soccer in its ‘tribal’ dimensions: roots, rituals, heroes, trappings, elders, followers, and tongue. The whole thing is amazingly odd; in its scope, it compares to nothing else I’ve seen or read about soccer. In analyzing uniforms as tribal costumes, referees as tribal judges, or fan songs as tribal chants the book exhibits an imagination and ambition that I love (and have cited before here).

But since initially stumbling upon the first 1981 edition a decade ago something has always felt just a bit off about the book. It took this new edition, which seems to have been updated mostly in its illustrations (along with a few minor segments of text), to make me dig into that feeling.

The couple hundred words José Mourinho ‘wrote’ as a foreword to the new edition sets the tone: ““Total football has led to global football—on and off the field. And whoever fails to realize it doesn’t understand anything. Those who only know football know nothing about football.”

This blustering certainty is familiar from Mourinho, but it is also fundamental to the underlying premise of The Soccer Tribe – that all the patterns and rituals of modern soccer, and modern society, are a direct inheritance from humanity’s hunter-gatherer past. If Mourinho would have gone the academic route, I realized, he would have been a socio-biologist.

To be fair, Mourinho goes onto say something more interesting: “Those who only see twenty-two men chasing after a ball fail to understand its geometry, its ballet, its psychological depth, its true nature. It is the most faithful representation of human nature and its may faces. It is a tribe where the rationale of tactics, emotion, and the fun of the game all prevail.”

Though still a bit grandiose (and not overly convincing as to the question of whether Mourinho actually read the book), the basic idea of their being more to the see than ‘chasing after a ball’ is the real value of The Soccer Tribe.

The problem, however, was well articulated back in a 1983 review of the original book by Ian Taylor in the journal Theory, Culture, & Society.

What is it that is objectionable and in need of challenge in this account of association football? It is not, as we might at first think, an empirical matter (much of what is said about the origins, the present form of the game and its surrounding rituals is quite accurate and consistent with other well-respected accounts). But there are empirical silences. In the familiar fashion of most sociobiology, there is a great emphasis on football as a (naturally-evolving) form of male-bonding and, indeed, of male “warriors” (who proceed, we are told, to create homes for the “warrior mates” that are peaceful retreats from the violence and stress of the field of play”) (p 181). The account is therefore silent on the considerable growth of women’s participation in the playing of soccer In recent years, especially in North America. Again, the celebratory discussion of soccer’s present status as a world sport is couched as if some other universal and natural logic is at work. This reads very oddly in 1982, not only for the British, German and other soccer lovers worried for the future of the sport in the light of the massive reductions in attendances, but also for students of sport who have noticed the spectacular growth of a genuine plurality of spectator and participant sports in most developed countries.

The Soccer Tribe and socio-biology, in other words, present a totalizing account of human behavior that ignores the dynamism of culture. Women’s soccer is a key counter-example. If soccer is a male warrior ritual to satisfy our hunting and fighting brain modules, what to make of women’s soccer and women fans? Taylor phrases it nicely (if academically): “The empirical display of soccer as a natural form, spanning all cultures and time, masks the specificity of the game’s significance in particular social formations.”

The game itself, in the phrasing I tend to prefer, is mostly just an empty cultural form.

And, speaking of empty, the other substantive review of the original 1981 Soccer Tribe book that I could find was by the novelist Martin Amis for the London Review of Books. Amis, after a strange and extended prattling on about the English national team’s performance in qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup, dismisses Morris in two withering paragraphs, starting by noting that a soccer manager left alone with the book might “die of inanition”:

“In The Soccer Tribe Morris maps out the connection between ‘ancient blood sports’ and ‘the modern ball game’. Nowadays, the goalmouth is ‘the prey’, the ball ‘the weapon’, and the attempt to score ‘a ritual aim at a pseudo-prey’. Is this true? Or, more important, is this interesting? Morris goes on to say that ‘in England, there are four “divisions”, presenting a parody of the social class system.’ He then traces the analogies between football and religion: ‘Star players are “worshipped” by their adoring fans and looked upon as “young gods”.’ Later on, he develops a far more compelling thesis, arguing that . . .

Ah, but the sands of space are running out. That’s enough football for today. I only have time to add that Morris’s book is handsomely packaged, that the pictures are great, magic, brill etc, and that the text is an austere, an unfaltering distillation of the obvious and the obviously false.”

Amis’s point, beyond being arrogant and dismissive, seems to be that it is hard to be an intellectual interested in football—and Morris fails unreservedly.

But I think that is too harsh. The Soccer Tribe is like much socio-biology (and contemporary evolutionary psychology): simultaneously problematically reductionist and thought-provoking in a challenging way. I find it interesting, for example, that The Soccer Tribe shows up as ‘cited by’ 250 academic works in Google Scholar – though a crude marker, it is clear from browsing those citing works that the book inspired some academics to new ways to think about the game.

But it doesn’t yet seem to have inspired another similar effort–I’ve yet to see another book that takes on the totality of soccer culture in an intentional way. The 2016 ‘new edition’ ofThe Soccer Tribe thus doesn’t need much updating beyond the pictures both because the analysis freezes culture as permanently set by evolution, and because not enough of significance has come out since 1981 to offer a more dynamic theory of the game as a whole. That may no longer be the way of academic work on soccer – which has indeed done much to chip away at understanding pieces of the game – but it sure would be fun to see.



Filed under: Fans, Fútbology

Why Nigerians Love Arsenal . . . and the EPL

By | May 23rd, 2017 | No Comments

The author at home with Spurs fans in Lagos

The English Premier League is an obsession for millions of African fans. Author and fútbologist David Goldblatt recently traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, to find out what this cultural phenomenon looks like and why there is such deep reverence for Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Spurs, and . . . Bournemouth.

In a newly released piece for Bleacher Report, Goldblatt hears from Emeka Onyenufuro, founder of Arsenal Nigeria, who tells him that “Monday to Friday lunchtime, I’m working in my job [as a manager in the power industry], but from Friday afternoon to Monday morning, it is all Arsenal.”

The quality of EPL play and the excitement of watching some of the world’s best players, including N’Golo Kanté, Victor Moses, Yaya Touré, and many other African superstars, partly explains the intensity of local passion for and dedication to the EPL. But another explanation is that the middle-class Nigerian men at the heart of this piece have willingly capitulated to the EPL’s “attention merchants” (Tim Wu docet): “It’s the branding. . . it’s just so professional,” a fan explains.

The author takes us into various public viewing spaces where the South African-owned satellite provider DSTV beams in live games, highlights, and talk shows that collectively stoke the obsessive compulsions of the Nigerian EPL fan. When not watching matches (and praying that frequent power cuts don’t ruin crucial moments in the broadcast), the lads follow their favorite clubs on social media for several hours a day.

The piece also features a fascinating description of the Socialiga, a football and basketball league and “social space to network with their peers, flirt and raise some money for charity.” It left me wanting to know even more about this astonishing kind of grassroots social entrepreneurship.

The Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo’s images complement the prose quite beautifully. And Esiebo’s camera does not lie: David Godlblatt seemed most at home in Lagos among his Spurs Nation mates (see photo above).

Read the full article here.

How We Speak Sports

By | April 18th, 2016 | No Comments

eepa_11477Image: Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.

Cross-posted from The Allrounder

[First published on November 13, 2014]

We don’t just watch sports – we speak and hear sports. To find out how language shapes our lives as fans, we asked some of our writers to tell us about the ways that people talk sports in English and their native languages. Kay Schiller hails from Munich, fellow historian Peter Alegi grew up in Rome, media scholar Markus Stauff lives in the Netherlands, and sociologist Pablo Alabarces teaches at the University of Buenos Aires. Together, they offer a Rosetta Stone of sports talk.

You’ve all lived for a time in English-speaking countries. Did anything in particular strike you – say, the first times you went to a stadium or watched a match on television – about the ways that native speakers of English talk about their sports?

Kay Schiller: I have lived in the UK since 1997. One of the things that struck me as a non-native speaker when going to see Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool, ManU, or, more recently, Blackburn Rovers was that I had a tremendously hard time understanding the terrace chants, despite being quite fluent in English. I suppose that this is similar to what English fans experience when they attend a Bundesliga match.

Thankfully, there are now websites that explain what you hear in the stadium. You can learn that Blackburn Rovers fans at Ewood Park have several profane chants for Burnley, such as “Burnley are s**t s**t s**t , they always gonna be s**t.” One major difference with Germany is that while this kind of folklore can be found in the supporters’ curves of stadia, you wouldn’t hear otherwise respectable-looking people participating in chants like these – or middle-aged ladies calling the referee a c***.

I’m not sure what this suggests about the different football cultures of England and Germany, or culture more generally, but I find it worthy of note. Perhaps it’s reassuring that even with all-seater stadia and the continuous jacking-up of gate prices in English football, some things do not change.

Peter Alegi: At venerable Fenway Park in Boston, sitting in the bleachers with my dad (obstinately wearing a Yankees cap), the usual chant we heard was: “Yankees suck!” At New Haven Coliseum, where my older brother and I followed minor league ice hockey, it was: “Shoot the puck!” At basketball and American football games, giant electronic scoreboards demanded chants of “Deeeeee-fe-nse!”

This was a world away from the Italian football stadiums and basketball arenas I grew up with.

What first struck me in the U.S. was a lack of spontaneity in the language of fans at the grounds. The PA announcer, the scoreboard, and recorded music directed the orality of the crowd. Maybe this was because of the corporate nature of American sports, with its top-down manufactured stadium experience that transforms fans into consumers. It’s also hard to chant and sing when spending so much time, money, and energy eating and drinking during games. In any case, the second thing that hit me about the U.S. context was the lack of creativity in the language. Much of the spoken word among fans, chants and commentary alike, seemed very direct and not terribly imaginative, a bit like the English language!

In Italy, our oral culture at the stadium was far more creative. I remember sitting in the stands listening to self-appointed bards who would rise to recite absorbing monologues in the vernacular (dialects are hugely important and richly diverse in Italy). These men (rarely were they women) explained the causes of our striker’s inexplicable impotence or the reasons for the referee’s situational ethics. The language was often metaphorical, indirect. The best insults were the ones delivered with a perfect balance of grit, humor, and linguistic dexterity. Even my intellectual Roman mother, with a PhD in Italian literature, relished such vulgar poetic performances (“vulgus” in Latin means ordinary people, after all). This creative genius came through in the songs we sang. Fans developed an art of crafting lyrics and combining them with a dizzying range of musical sources: classical (Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was a favorite); operatic (Verdi, of course); patriotic compositions (“La Marseillaise”); marches (John Philip Sousa!); folk/traditional (“La Società dei Magnaccioni,” “O Sole Mio,” and “Auld Lang Syne”); partisan resistance (“Bella Ciao”), and loads of pop (from “Yellow Submarine” to Antonello Venditti’s “Roma, Roma, Roma”).

Eventually, I came to appreciate the comfort and safety of U.S. stadiums and arenas. But to this day, their canned and often lifeless aural culture makes me nostalgic of home.

Click here to read on.

Fandom, Mzansi-style

By | September 30th, 2013 | 6 Comments

Guest Post by *Liz Timbs

In eMpangeni, a small city of 110,000 people in the sugar-producing area of Zululand, South Africa, my host family, the Khuzwayos, seemed typical of the local football fans I had read and heard so much about before arriving for two months of isiZulu language training. Both my “brothers,” Lindane and Njabulo, played soccer and supported PSL Champions Kaizer Chiefs. Lindane, however, also admitted to being a big Cristiano Ronaldo fan.

When I left eMpangeni for Durban (pop. 3+ million!), I found similar loyalties in my new host family, the Nenes. My brother, Ntuthuko, and my sister’s boyfriend, Mthembeni, were both diehard supporters of Kaizer Chiefs, so I “had to” fall in line with them. I was so proud when I finally bought my amaKhosi jersey, but my sister, Noxolo, was horrified; she emphatically told me that she wouldn’t go out with me in public if I was wearing it . . . but that’s a story for another time.

My other sister, Nothando, is an athlete in her own right, so we spoke often about sports. One evening I started asking her about football and was struck by her statement that she preferred watching European matches, especially La Liga contests, a lot more than the South African PSL, let alone Bafana Bafana, the country’s struggling national team. I must have looked completely shocked when she said this, because Nothando started laughing at me (a fairly common occurrence, to be honest) and then went on to explain that European teams’ play was tighter and more professional than that of South African sides.

“They jika too much, those guys,” Nothando declared. In isiZulu, the verb ukujika literally means “to turn,” but the term has also become shorthand for showboating on the football pitch. South African players, in her opinion, cared far more about showing off than about playing clean, controlled football, so she liked to watch world-class teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid instead.

When I went to Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital of KwaZulu-Natal, to spend time with Izichwe Football Club, I decided to make it a point to ask the players which teams they supported in order to see if Nothando’s opinions would be echoed by other teenagers.

In one of my first interviews, taking care not to ask about a South African team specifically, Asanda told me that he supported Chelsea. He gave a careful, detailed response about their playing style and the specific reasons why he supported the Blues. When I asked him if he had a favorite South African team, his response was less enthusiastic: “I wouldn’t say there is one, but I prefer Orlando Pirates.” Looking back now, I wish I had pushed him on the reasons why, but I had caught him during one of his school breaks and time was short.

When I spoke to the other players on the team, I got largely the same reaction. They would first respond with their favorite European clubs (e.g. Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United), then almost as an afterthought they named a South African team, usually Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates. (One boy was partial to Mamelodi Sundowns, while none supported Maritzburg United).

So what does this tell us about the nature of fandom in South Africa? Maybe nothing terribly revealing given the fairly small sample that I’m pulling from. But taken with the other “evidence” that I gathered over two months it suggests that South African fans have multiple allegiances.

At the Amazulu-Manchester City “Mandela Day” match at Mabhida Stadium, I saw exponentially more people wearing the colors of Manchester United than AmaZulu green. In the market stall where I bought my Chiefs and Bafana Bafana jerseys, there were far more European soccer jerseys available than South African ones.

It seems that the trend is to support European teams first, then the local South African teams. Is this just because of the quality of play, as Nothando Nene told me? Or is it about the accessibility of televised games and the incessant marketing of Messi, Ronaldo, and other global mega stars? Is sport ushering in a new form of colonialism or is there more going on here than meets the eye?

*Liz Timbs is a PhD student in African history at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in the history of health and healing in South Africa; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs

Filed under: Fans

Football “Bookzines” Gain Popularity

By | October 11th, 2012 | 5 Comments

“Neither magazine nor book, but somewhere in between,” is how journalist and author Jonathan Wilson describes the genre of long-form football writing currently gaining popularity in the United States and Britain. I call this genre the bookzine, a hybrid form that lies at the intersection of academia and popular journalism.

In an insightful article at, Zach Slaton notes how in September 2012 “three English-language print publications – XI Quarterly, The Blizzard, and Howler – either debuted or had their latest issue released all within a month of each other.” Each of the three magazines has a distinct style, edge, form, and funding model. Published in both print and digital editions, XI Quarterly and The Blizzard are more narrative and non-commercial than Howler, which emphasizes visual graphics and has a deal with Nike. “We’re embarking on a golden age for such writing,” Slaton writes, one “that may just be sustainable given the niches each one fills.”

The main triggers powering this new trend, according to Slaton, are “the globalization of the game and the tearing down of historical publishing structures.” He’s right, of course, as satellite and cable television, Web publishing, video and audio streaming online, Facebook, and Twitter expanded access for soccer junkies almost everywhere.

Having spent almost twenty years as a sort of football academic, I wonder why this supposed “golden era” is happening right now. Are there some deeper, longer-term factors fueling this sudden explosion of bookzines?


Playing a Fine Motherwell…Again

By | September 8th, 2011 | 1 Comment

Motherwell, the Scottish Football Club who introduced a sophisticated passing game and a collective team approach to spectators in South Africa, are once again at the forefront of the game’s development. This time Motherwell are showing how to tackle the hooligans that hang out in far too many board rooms.

According to a report by Gavin McCafferty in today’s “Scotsman“, Motherwell plan to bring two fans on to their board as a first step towards the aim of making the club owned wholly by supporters. There will be a £300 one-off fee, with a voluntarily annual fee of £50 thereafter to retain benefits. More wealthy supporters and businesses can pay up to £25,000 to join, with added benefits, but each member will have one vote. The members will vote representatives on to the club’s board, initially two, but chief executive Leeann Dempster yesterday revealed the end game was full ownership and total democracy in running the Lanarkshire club.

About 300 fans turned up at an open meeting on Monday and Dempster was encouraged by the general feedback from supporters. “They can contribute to the financial security of the club,” Dempster said. “This is the first time they have the opportunity to be properly involved. I think that’s what excites people the most – the thought of being able to nominate or be nominated to be on the board. Two members of the society will be on the board. They will enact the wants of the other members. “We want to get to a stage where that will develop further and more members will come on to the board. Hopefully to a point where, once it’s clear that the model is working, we can transition full ownership of the club over to the society. You can’t go from a model of having one benefactor on the board to the next day having supporters running the club. That would cause enormous problems. So we’re not naive enough to think you can just do that and forget about it.”

Tags: , ,

Filed under: Fans

The Price of Loaves and Goals in Mozambique

By | September 3rd, 2010 | 4 Comments

Angela is mopping the again floor at Milanos. The Revolta Popular appears to have ran its course. A closer inspection reveals although most folk want to believe it is over…”more or less”, they say. The reality maybe somewhat different.

Angela made it to work, but many others have not. Some shops are open, but many are not. The schools are closed. The roads are not congested. A few Chappas (mini buses) work their regular routes. Spacious rides with extra leg room today.

I traversed as much of the city as I could in the past five hours. What I mean by “the city” is that which makes the cut on most of the tourist maps of Maputo, not including the predictably safe Embassy area of Sommerchield and the more exclusive Polana district, save for a visit to Maputo Central Hospital and the Josina Machel Secondary School. Here is what I heard and saw and felt from folks along the way.


Tags: ,

Filed under: Fans, Players

« Previous Posts