It was William James who first called for a moral equivalent of war. In his article published in 1910, James wrote:
"I spoke of the "moral equivalent" of war. So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way. But I have no serious doubt that the ordinary prides and shames of social man, once developed to a certain intensity, are capable of organizing such a moral equivalent as I have sketched, or some other just as effective for preserving manliness of type. It is but a question of time, of skilful propogandism, and of opinion-making men seizing historic opportunities."
Football (or soccer) was probably the last thing in James' mind when he wrote this classic piece. In fact, what he suggested then was, we should all go to work at coal and iron mines, and spend our energies for dish-washing, clothes-washing, window-washing, road-building and tunnel-making! He also did not mention anything about the Olympic Games, which at the time was beginning to grow as a major international sporting event.
James himself was rather clueless about what the moral equivalent of war is, but there is no doubt today that sports is the closest to James' vision. While many would argue that the Olympic Games is the biggest sporting event of all, I have no doubt that as far as the moral equivalent of war is concern, the FIFA World Cup is the better candidate.
There are too many different games in the Olympics which means only a few big nations can realistically become the overall champion. In the World Cup however, all the 32 teams competing in the finals have the same number of players and play the same number of matches in the opening round. That puts all the teams more-or-less on equal footing.
Moreover, football as a game embodies a lot of our psychological nature. Psychologists have for long believe that human beings have an innate desire to compete. And in addition, with reference to the Freudian perspective, have the need for catharsis; to release some of the overabundance psychic energy.
People in the past went to war because that was probably the only social event which gives them the opportunity to compete and collectively release some psychic energy. Understandably, war is filled with aggressive and destructive behaviours that are simply the manifestations of the energy released.
Football provides the same opportunity. In this game, players need to be aggressive to win. Similar to a battle in a war, a football game cannot be won by strength and skills alone. It must be supported by clever tactics and strategies. And most importantly, football is a team game where teamwork is of paramount importance although the heroics of individuals can prove to be crucial; again very similar to what happens in war battles.
We no longer live in times where envy, pride and jealousy would propel someone to physically destroy the enemy (at least not most of the time). These 'sins' still exist between and against people of different nations. But rather than going to war against the enemy, the battle can be fought on the football field. Players representing each nation are the soldiers who battle to preserve the honour of the country, while the spectators are the common citizens who watch with pride the valiancy of their 'warriors' fighting on their behalf. And the best thing of all about football is, there is minimal chance of civilian casualties.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa offers the prospect of some tantalising encounters. As early as the second round, either England or the United States may battle against Germany. Of course, none of the players of these countries were around during the First and Second World Wars, but the memories of both would surely spice-up the build-up to such an encounter.
Meanwhile, at the quarter-final stage; if both teams advance as expected, England and Argentina will do battle, a match that would surely bring up memories of the bitter Falklands War fought by the two nations. Argentinian football legend and current national head coach Diego Maradona has repeatedly said that beating England in the 1986 World Cup was the sweetest moment in his football career. No doubt this was largely because of the bitterness carried over from the Falklands War. If the two nations do meet again this year, the reciprocal animosity between players and fans from both countries will again be the focus of attention.
If England advances to the semi-final stage, their likely opponent is Holland, which is another juicy encounter. After more than a century where people from both countries fought a long and bitter war in South Africa (the Second Boer War), they may do battle again on the very same soil, this time for the honour and pride of advancing to a world cup final match.
Football may well be a silly old game where 22 grown-ups run like crazy chasing after a white ball. But football today is more than just a game. The FIFA World Cup, football's biggest tournament is the moral equivalent of war where people of different nations battle for their nations' pride and glory. There is no need to bludgeon your opponents to win this 'war'. All you need is the right tactics and strategies and to fight on the field in the name your country. And the satisfaction of winning would be just as sweet.
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