Sports serve three Great Purposes: 1) To bring and keep groups together; 2) To distract (or release) group members from hardship, corruption, and other pedestrian and elite failures; and 3) To train the group for being set upon another group (or groups) — both mobilization and scapegoating. Sports are integral to building and maintaining ʿaṣabiyya. This is why developing countries often have whole ministries of “sports” or “sports and youth.” Team sports in particular teach young people that there is something greater than the individual in this world, the primacy of group survival and glory over individual recognition (Our Survival). It introduces young men to concepts like legitimacy and obedience to group authority outside the family setting. Learning sportsmanship can spill over into good manners, an understanding of duty and responsibility and other chivalrous attributes. (Of course, not everyone learns those things.) Membership in a group, a team or club, helps to socialize young citizens into civil society, builds pride in self, neighborhood, city and nation. As such, sports clubs are key in nation-building and other such projects. Recreational sporting encourages better citizenship. bowlers are famous for being more likely to vote than other Americans. All this is especially true where participation in sports is concerned. It spills over onto spectators, who put their faith in the team, drape themselves in its colors and reel with every try and every goal.
Fans learn something more useful from sporting: loyalty. Anyone who has sat in a packed stadium, surrounded by fellow fans of a common team, staring out across the pitch at a rival set, with his face (or body)-painted, wearing a ridiculous hat while chanting a fight song or anthem, knows precisely what ʿaṣabiyya means. Out on the grass the motto is: My team, win or loss. A national football team or city club, for instance, is a lowest common denominator. In most places such teams have no party, no prophets, no ideology. They represent the collective in its purest form. It is Us out against the Other. The average fan grafts himself to the good fortunes and misfortunes of his team and, with it, sets out head to head against rival cities and nations. For most, loyalty to a major club relies on the same Noble Lie as other forms of primordial loyalty: I am here not by an accident of birth but because of providence. As the song goes: “I am Syrian and I am lucky!” a far more uplifting and emotive chant than “I am Syrian by accident!” An insult to the team is an insult to me, its victory is mine. A club from a rebellious minority region takes on special meaning when it faces up against the capital city’s, where the match becomes something like a mock battle. JS Kabylie, perhaps the greatest Algerian football club, carries its own anthems and flags. At a face off with MC Alger in the 1970s, JSK fans booed the capital team and ran Houari Boumediene from the stadium. Fans project popular sentiments and contemporary troubles onto their teams. Our teams become Us out against world: Somehow Olympic ice hockey becomes a titanic struggle between capitalism and communism, Heartland Power against Sea Power — minus the carriers, tanks and bombers. A football qualifier becomes a duel for national honor and against national humiliation. When Our Team is in the running, there are no dilemmas: We are there with them because We are them.
While the masses are fixated on a tough match other troubles fade into the background momentarily. Meanwhile, others carry on with the business of profit-making and pillaging. Politics is a sport in which sociopaths excel. Kitsch sporting jingoism makes an easy cover for political maneuvers that might otherwise inspire suspicion or undermine the aesthetic of elite authority. Political leaders who associate themselves with local or national teams hope to glean some legitimacy and credibility from those associations. Sporting success can increase public optimism and cloud popular thought processes. The Far Enemy distracts from the Near Enemy — the more the better. Politics involves competition between interests represented by factions. The greater the differences are between internal interest groups the more acrimonious political competition becomes and the greater the potential for fragmentation. Sport, religion, ideology, nationalism, honor (nif )help to form and drive the emotive, frequently irrational, powers of ʿaṣabiyya, the Strong Force in communal politics, James Burnham’s “political formula,” and Plato’s Noble Lie. A sporting crisis between national teams can have the same effect of a small, successful war. The Egypt-Algeria football crisis last summer did for the Algerian regime what the Invasion of Grenada did for Ronald Reagan. As Ait Menguellet put it in his great song “Ammi” (“My Son”), a guide to gaining political power in Algeria: “Create wars and send those you fear to the front. This way you can mourn their deaths and gain the people’s sympathy.” Crisis narrows differences and highlights common interests, particularly those related to Our Survival.
The whole concept of competitive sports — especially team sports — is adversarial and crisis driven. A sports match is a fight for survival. Winning is survival — Our Survival. This is why team sports are of such great utility to new states and developing countries. Where class and ethnicity and poverty divide “national” sporting can unite. Where misery is widespread vicarious triumph through sport can come as a welcome distraction. It can help provide a sense of community in a city where atomistic individualism and faceless overpopulation cripples group feeling. Like religion and ideology sporting euphoria sedates, if momentarily, what could be revolutionary or dissident masses. In this way, the ruling class carries on with its business, confident that their greatest enemy — the people on the periphery — have their frustration directed elsewhere for the time being. Such distractions can even turn class fractions with widely divergent interests into political allies, if only temporarily. Sporting-driven euphoria, with other distractions, stalls class conflict and people’s war and other vertical conflicts within political communities.
When elites, and then popular classes, nationalize sporting the result is similar to other such stylings as national cuisines, anthems, languages, costumes, monarchs, civic and state religions and even laws — an institution that enables transcendent participation in national life. It often said, sometimes jokingly other times less so, that all the Belgians have in common are their football team, their beer and their King. And the mini-buffer endures. In a Bonapartist system, sporting-euphoria helps the elite keep the toleration and loyalty of enabling and supportive factions in society. The danger for leaders of precarious societies associating closely with a sporting team is that doing so associates them with failure and victory. A symbol of triumph and honor can just as soon become a symbol of incompetence and humiliation. In such circumstances, the brevetted defender of national honor very easily reverts back to pervert politician.
Still, there is a way out. Defeat is not always mere defeat. Mere defeat results from failure, plain and simple. Blame goes right to the top — to the general or the president or the boss. Defeat is Our Fault. Defeat can be the culmination of conspiracy, betrayal or skulduggery. Blame ought still go right to those who failed to anticipate, plan or cope with subterfuge. But with the right spin blame goes outward to the more clever enemy Far Enemy. This defeat is Their Fault and supposedly can be remedied by lots of shouting and revenge. This strategy is scapegoating, a powerful survival mechanism for elites and die hard partisans. It can be used to mobilize the faithful to do better next time or to simmer with ceaseless hate for the injustice that is Their Fault. Our Fault, too, can inspire self-improvement in a healthier way. But Our Fault is less useful in a polarized setting where claiming responsibility for failure exposes an individual or group to popular anger. Here again, comes the question of Our Survival. Scapegoating is the way elites salvage ʿaṣabiyya when their continuity and credibility is threatened — when recognition of Our Fault might collapse those directly responsible and thus exposing the Near Enemy.