Football is the world’s biggest sport. Whether you go to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the streets of Barcelona, a London square, or even the Siberian cold, chances are you’ll see people kicking a ball. Once every four years, we gather with friends and family to watch 11 players draped in our nation’s colours. Brothers, sisters, mums and dads scream as if it was a matter of life and death. We all think we are rational human beings. But the real reason why we love football lies in one of our deepest emotions.
First of all, a quick assignment for you. Grab a sheet of paper and write down 5 things people from all different corners of the world care about. Let’s say, Mexico City, Lagos, Saint Petersburg, Bangkok and Paris.
I’ll give you a minute.
It’s hard, isn’t it? I have written down the following:
All things on my list are vital for human survival… Except for football.
The world’s game
Weirdly, on a globe full of creative individuals, we all seem to like the same sports. It’s near impossible to go out and ask every individual which sports they prefer, but based on how many people watch the World Cup every four years, researchers have been able to estimate the number at 3.5 billion people. That’s half of the people on our planet. Half of us fill some of their spare time with watching football.
For many of these people, football is not just a game. It means more. You might even go as far as saying it is an actual ‘matter of life and death’.
But is it really, though, objectively speaking? Would people die if the game magically disappears tomorrow? Worst case scenario, the people who depend on football to make a living would have to go find a different source of income.
But for you as a fan? Think about it. It would probably save you a lot of money and energy. Money and energy you could use to solve the actual ‘problems of life and death’, such as:
Famine and starvation.
Okay, okay, enough with the guilt tripping. I get it: it’s not because it has no objective purpose, that it doesn’t have an emotional one. People don’t just care about football, there is a real passion. We love football, but why?
Humans are no rational beings. You only care about what emotionally moves you in some way. But to care about things, you need to be able to tell yourself a story about why something is important.
Football creates a superficial, but clear purpose. Just kick the ball in the net. Score more goals than the other team and you’re king. Score fewer and you’re the cause of all of the world’s misery. It’s do or die. It’s not connected to your commitment, perseverance or determination. It doesn’t matter if you create lots of chances or have most of the ball. In the end, all that counts is finding the back of the net.
It’s a black-or-white narrative that entails drama and delirium. You could be in seventh heaven all game, only to be mugged of everything in the end. You could have 90 minutes of frustration, only to find sudden salvation in the end. No movie plot brings the same tension. Few moments in life involve the same emotional release.
So that’s purpose. But what if I told you there is an even stronger need deep inside of you? It’s embedded in all of your actions. Let me give you a couple of examples. You meet up with your friends because of the feeling of connection it gives you. You live with your family because you need the support of other people. It’s the reason you spend a whole lot of your life looking for that special person. No one wants to be alone. We are social beings. We need to belong.
Football gives you just that. Start supporting a football team now and you get the community for free. A group of like-minded people to go through the highest highs and lowest lows.
Football madness reaches delirium once every four years, when national jerseys are being put on. Everyone and their grandma are suddenly football fans. Divided nations unite. Differences fade away. For 90 minutes, all problems are gone.
Football’s narrative of togetherness and unity are the reason why it has the ability to address issues in society. Football players are unique in being role models who can influence people’s thinking and doing. Johan Cruyff was a pioneer in using football as a tool to live a better life. Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are just a couple of a generation of young players who recognise the voice they have. They are spending a fair share of their time, looking to do their bit in providing our children a better tomorrow. In recent years, the Premier League have been shining a light on equal rights-movements like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA+.
Yes, they could be doing more. No, football isn’t immune to society’s problems.
But in a polarising world, football is bringing people together instead of pushing them apart. For many people, it is a distraction from everyday worries. It can be a mirror for society, that’s making ineffable issues, effable. It can provide community when you’re lonely. A light in the dark.
And that is why I love football.