In bits and pieces, sports are sometimes understood as complementary to war. Sports not only encourage wartime attitudes and behavior, but they also have a critical educative function in training men for combat. Throughout history, there has been a connection between sports and warfare. Both culturally and historically speaking, they have served as mechanisms for male bonding, for the social construction of masculinity, and in strengthening power relations between agents, whether individuals or groups, in society and nation-States. Tim Cornell argues that (2002, p. 37): “Competitive games, in the form of contests between individuals or teams, imitate war in a more or less conscious manner. This fact is most obviously reflected in the language of sport”.
According to anthropologist Richard Sipes (1973), sports and war manifest no functional relationship across time. Cross-culturally, war and combative sports indeed show a direct relationship. In the explanation and interpretation of the link between war and sports, there are essentially two theories. The first is that sports are complementary to war, that they stimulate and encourage warlike attitudes and behavior, and that they have an educative function in training men for combat. The second theory is that sport represents an alternative to war. This means that sport can be seen both as a ‘safety valve’, which has the effect of diverting aggressive tendencies away from warlike violence; and a parallel manifestation of the same aggressive and competitive tendencies (Cornell & Allen, 2002). Even with the most modern and sophisticated research techniques, there is still no definite and convincing explanation to the sport-war relation.
There are some similarities between the nature of football training and the art of war. First, football is a way of creating comradeship among masses of troops. Second, it is also a dance in civilian life as much as it is a dance of discipline in physical exercise and teamwork that can be successfully transferred into tactical battle experience. Third, both entail contests of physical strength and skill and tend to reinforce group solidarity and identity. Fourth, and not less important, both fuel national pride, and sometimes, even ethnic revanchism. It is known that one of the oldest known forms of soccer — as recognized by FIFA — , comes straight from the spartan warriors of Greece. In Ancient Greece, men played a soccer-like sport called Episkyros where they tried to throw a ball over a scrimmage while avoiding tackles, much like the Japanese cuju. The game was founded on team organization and defensive formation during a period of heavy militarization in Ancient Greece.
‘War is a game’ is more than a figure of speech. This is quite evident in aristocratic warrior societies that practice what is conventionally described as war, embraced by traditionalist philosophers such as Julius Evola. In timocratic-like societies, war is seen as an exercise to obtain prestige and honor, rather than any political or material advantage and hence, war has been highly ritualized. Even if movable booty is a very important product of victory in war, in the form of precious objects, cattle and women — sometimes men as well — , these gains nevertheless function as part of the honor system because they are expended in conspicuous displays of rewards to followers, feasting and gift-giving, and therefore serve to reinforce the prestige and standing of virtuous, strong, insightful, and successful warriors.
It is worth noting that the Russian CSKA Sports Club, a Soccer team founded in 1911 after the 1905 Russian Liberal Revolution, was a military and political apparatus for Soviet soldiers and officers alike, not excluding high Soviet officials. Even if the CSKA Sports Club was no longer part of the Russian Armed Forces since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it should be pointed out that the Russian Ministry of Defense still remained as a PFC CSKA shareholder until 2012 (Tijerina, 2017; Министерство обороны избавилось от акций ПФК ЦСКА, 2012). Football is not isolated from the military tradition and leadership, both in Russia, and overseas. On the other hand, U.S. presidents also use to communicate values and political decisions when they invite championship teams to visit the White House. Sports and wars are one as well as the other something to fight and be proud of as a nation. Allison (2000) argues that “national identity is the most marketable product in sport”.
Sport is a cultural institution, one that is inextricably linked with larger economic, political, and social structures. During a match, be it football or baseball — or even tennis — , national anthems serve not only as an expression of national unity, but also as an announcement that the action on the field is just about to begin. The pregame ritual performance is political, cultural and patriotic, and defines a game in terms of nationalist identities. Sports has long been used as means of fostering nationalism and patriotism. The arena serves as a place to promote public policy, spread propaganda, and even justify military actions. It is noteworthy that as Andrew C. Billings, Michael L. Butterworth, and Paul D. Turman (2015, p. 166) found out, former American president George W. Bush claimed that Iraq national football team’s victories were a direct result of U.S. military actions in the Middle East, just after the Iraqi National Soccer team qualified for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games and experienced unexpected success. The claim was highly controversial, and the majority of the Iraqui players themselves disapproved Bush’s comments.
In the long run, major international sports events have cultural and political natures: nation-states enter the stadium under their national anthem, and represent their countries. Since international sports are a powerful source of nationalism and patriotism, one should be careful when supporting bids to hold major sporting events in countries where leaders show a penchant for using nationalist sentiment to increase support for very aggressive foreign policies, as Bertoli has pointed out (2017). Both sports and nationalism can make the public more hawkish by causing them to temporarily change their views on other countries, nations, and religions. These shifts in public opinion may create opportunities and incentives for leaders to use military force and push more aggressive agendas.
Football and military science are both arts in the same league. The idea that nationalism causes and fuels political conflict matters for how scholars interpret history, theorize about international relations, and formulate suggestions to policymakers. Understanding the relation of sports, nationalism and warfare can help us to better address the problem of political violence. The history of international sports provides enough qualitative and quantitative evidence to suggest that fluctuations in nationalism can affect state military aggression in powerful ways. The 1969 Football War is an example of what happens when coping with underlying political tensions during major sporting events goes the wrong way. Over time, when all has wound itself down, nations disappear. The smell of war can be perceived just the way people are able to whiff the smell of football players at a league distance.
Allison, L. (2000). Sport and nationalism. In Coakley, J. & Dunning, E. (Eds.)., Handbook of sport studies, 344–355.
Bertoli, A. (2017). Nationalism and Conflict: Lessons from International Sports. University of California. http://polisci.ucla.edu/sites/default/files/u245/andrew_bertoli_paper_05-01-17.pdf
Billings, A. C., Butterworth, M. L., & Turman, P. D. (2015). Communication and sport: Surveying the field. Sage Publications Inc.
Cornell, T., & Allen, T. (2002). War and games. Center for interdisciplinary research on social stress.
Sipes, R. (1973). War, Sports and Aggression: An Empirical Test of Two Rival Theories. American Anthropologist, 75, 64–86. http://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/aa.1973.75.1.02a00040
Tijerina, L. (2017, August 11). Football Coaching and Military Science. Geopolitica. www.geopolitica.ru/en/article/football-coaching-and-military-science
Министерство обороны избавилось от акций ПФК ЦСКА. (3 Мая 2012). Cпорт РБС. https://sportrbc.ru/news/575532789a7947102987ba41?ruid=NaN