That societies are split by tribalism is a commonplace, but last weekend’s World Cup quarterfinal game between England and France showed tribalism in a special light. Two aspects of that December 10 game may have significance even for those who don’t follow the sport.
As the game was about to begin, the two team captains came together to shake hands. What many observers didn’t know is that the captain of England, Harry Kane, is also the captain of England’s Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur, while France’s captain, Hugo Lloris, is Tottenham’s goalkeeper. Not only are Kane and Lloris teammates during the Premier League’s ten-month season, but they’re also close friends, and they and their families regularly have dinner together. But that day, December 10, these two fellow tribesmen had become opponents. For me, as a Tottenham supporter, their handshake was filled with powerful contradictions.
The game’s other notable feature was penalty kicks. In soccer, when a defender fouls an opponent inside a designated zone around the goal, it is deemed a penalty. A player from the attacking team stands twelve yards before the goal with only the goalkeeper to defend it. When the attacker kicks the ball at the goal, there are three possible outcomes: The kicker sends the ball into the net and the attacking team scores, the goalkeeper makes a save, or the kicker outright misses.
Soccer fans around the world appreciate the ebbs and flows as teams unfold different formations of attack and defense and, ideally, demonstrate skill in dribbling and passing the ball. Unlike just about any other sport, scores tend to be low, with many games ending in 0-0 draws. It means that penalties can unduly affect the result. No doubt for this reason, referees can be slow to award them. Often there are no penalties. One is noteworthy, two or more exceptional.
In the December 10 game, England were behind 1-0 into the second half. Then a French player committed a foul in his penalty zone. England was awarded a penalty.
England’s best shooter, as well as its captain, Harry Kane, walked to the spot. Before him stood his friend, the French captain and goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris.
In order to bring England level, Kane had to do what he normally does: kick the ball hard and accurately at the goal so that the goalkeeper has no chance of stopping it. But this time wasn’t normal. As commentators noted, both Kane and Lloris looked down, unable to look at each other.
The referee blew the whistle, signaling for Kane to go ahead. Kane stepped forward to fiddle with the placement of the ball. He stepped back. At last he ran at the ball, slammed his foot at it, and the ball shot into the goal. England were level. Kane ran back, screaming with delight. At his net, Lloris looked forlorn.
It didn’t take long for France to score a second goal. Once again, England were down by a goal with something like ten minutes left in regular time. Initially, the England players thrust forward frantically, without any apparent plan, but they settled down and organized their attacks. Then, incredibly, a French player committed another foul inside the penalty area. The ref didn’t see it, but video review, known as “VAR” (video assistant referee) confirmed what the commentators saw. Reversing himself, he awarded the penalty.
Once again, Kane confronted Lloris. They still couldn’t look at each other. Kane waited for the ref’s whistle. It blew. All around the world, supporters of England and France held our breaths. Would Lloris dive in the direction that Kane kicked, putting him in a position to save? Even if he did, would Kane kick the ball so hard that he still had no chance? Or would Lloris hurl himself the wrong way, with the ball flying unimpeded into the empty part of the net?
Kane ran at the ball. Kick. The ball flew over the net.
Kane had done the unthinkable: completely missed. Lloris and his teammates celebrated. Kane hid his face. And so the scoring ended.
Had the game been between Tottenham and another Premier League team, the two men would have celebrated Kane’s goal and Lloris’s save together. But on opposing national teams, what each wanted was for the other to fail.
Most of the time, sports tribalism is at the local club level, and a team’s widest fan base is the people who live in that location. Sheffield, where I last lived in England, has two notable soccer teams. For reasons that elude me today, I chose Sheffield Utd, while my brother, with whom I was always at odds in our childhood, went for Sheffield Wednesday. Since moving to the New York area, my longest allegiance has gone to baseball’s Mets, although my seven years in Massachusetts made the Boston Red Sox an enduring sentimental favorite. Why do I also count myself a fan of Tottenham, a district of London? Although I lived in a suburb of that city and went to a school in London from the age of four to my tenth birthday, I doubt I ever stepped foot in Tottenham. In this case, my allegiance is due to my friendship with a fellow I’ve known since we were six and who never left England. Through him, my old soccer enthusiasm has reignited in the past two decades, and it’s only natural that his club should also become mine.
But what exactly am I loyal to? What exactly is a soccer or a baseball team? Is it the players? Hardly. Few, if any, will have grown up locally. Moreover, few stay longer than one or two seasons, if that.
Is it the owners? I rarely know much about them. In the case of the Mets, the new majority owner has an all-too-colorful history with the Securities and Exchange Commission, so much so that he changed his company’s name to overcome the damage to its reputation.
Has my support been earned by my teams’ performance? In recent years, Sheffield Utd has hardly covered itself in glory, beyond rising from England’s third tier to its top, the Premier League, only to end up in last place and be relegated back to the second tier. The Mets last won the so-called World Series thirty-six years ago, in 1986. Tottenham is more consistently good, but equally consistently fails to win anything. The Red Sox alone have done well, astoundingly so, winning three World Championships, but only after I left Massachusetts and couldn’t follow them closely.
The only connection between me and three of these teams is or was location and, with the fourth, friendship. But my friend doesn’t need me to support his club for us to stay close, while living in Brooklyn is hardly enough to excite me about the Mets, whose home is in another borough and not so easy to get to by subway.
Clubs may seek my support, but to one degree or another, their motive is commercial. Some fans are lured in to pay small fortunes to attend games, many fans buy club merchandise, and all fans subject themselves to advertising while watching or listening to game commentaries. But none of my four teams knows me from Adam or, for that matter, Eve.
Part of belonging to a tribe is targeting another as an enemy. In my case it’s the Yankees, New York City’s other major league baseball team. But what possible reason do I have to despise the Yankees, beyond my dislike of one of their leading broadcasters who says “Amazing” in every sentence he utters? After all, the Yankees have had players over the years whom I admire, such as Mariano Rivera and Don Mattingly. True, the extravagantly wealthy Yankees have succeeded by spending fortunes on players, and they don’t always succeed even then. But all that means is that my stupid team, the Mets, were too stingy to spend enough to field competitive teams. And now, as if to puncture my illusion once and for all, the Mets are now baseball’s biggest spender.
Tribalism is about our need to belong, but belong to what? Something bigger than ourselves, perhaps, but what that may be remains amorphous.
In short, in sports belonging is an illusion. Yet even someone like me, fully aware that I’m playing tricks on myself, happily maintains the self-deception of belonging and conviction in the moral degradation of my teams’ opponents. My emotions can be so strong that I’m buoyed when my teams win and dejected when they lose.
Outside sports, tribalism is a desperately serious matter. Is it possible that racism, the ultimate in tribalism, is less about innate hostility than the compulsion to preserve a sense of belonging by inventing an enemy? Meanwhile, Russia’s tribe has convinced itself that Ukraine should never have split off as a distinct tribe, and is now punishing Ukrainians relentlessly for their perceived betrayal.
But sometimes patriotic tribalism can override internal divisions. For example, commentators suggest that the diversity of this year’s French team might help bring the country’s different ethnic tribes closer together.
Therapists deny it and peace activists resist it, but we humans are an aggressive species. It shows up in activities that would seem even more benign than sports. Shared political persuasions can generate a sense of belonging, along with an identifiable enemy. Shared tastes in movies or literature create tribes of right- and wrong-thinkers. We convince ourselves we belong even through our chosen travel destinations and the charities we support.
Tribalism is here to stay. The question can’t be how we eliminate it, but how we might work with it.
Going back to that game between France and England, the English captain was joyous at the French captain’s expense, only for emotions to reverse when the English captain missed the second penalty kick. Yet two weeks later, on December 26, both men will resume playing for the same tribe, Tottenham. My guess is that they’ll embrace, if they haven’t already. They won’t shed their patriotic allegiances, but they will empathize with each other’s emotions. As Tottenham resumes playing, they will celebrate and despair together. Their friendship might even be stronger for the time when they were opponents.
Everyday language, corporate lingo and political rhetoric are riddled with sports metaphors: the ball’s in their court, down for the count, hail Mary, dropped the ball, hole in one. Could the handshake between Kane and Lloris, comrades but implacable enemies for one game, become a metaphor for how we might better handle tribalism?