Soccer Tribe and Soccer Ritualsjoe
When I first came across Desmond Morris’s book The Soccer Tribe, I thought it was a joke. I was on the campus of Amherst College and popped in the library to see what kind of soccer books were on the shelves. There I found the book that has since become one of my favorite soccer titles of all times.
The Soccer Tribe is a coffee table sized book from the early 1980s. The biography of the author said he had earned a Ph.D. from Oxford and had carried out much important research on animal behavior (he may also be known to readers more worldly than I was at the time as the author of the classic The Naked Ape).
The book, in 320 pages and complete with full-color pictures, looks at everyone (players, coaches, referees, fans, bureaucrats, etc.) who has anything to with soccer. This so-called “Soccer Tribe” is studied with the type of precision usually reserved by anthropologists in their work on tribes in remote parts of the world. As I flipped through the pages for the first time, I couldn’t tell whether Morris had written a serious study or if his book was simply intended to amuse.
It turns out the book is quite serious (it would have been quite a lot of work to simply make a joke, I now realize). The Soccer Tribe is, in some ways, reminiscent of the satirical paper Body Ritual Among the Nacirema, in which anthropologist Horace Miner made typical American behavior (like teeth brushing) seem exotic. Like Miner, Morris employs tools that anthropologists typically use to study “real” tribes in other cultures in looking at those involved in soccer betting sites. The result is a book that is simultaneously brilliant in analysis, hilarious in making light of things we take for granted, and beautifully presented (fair warning: short shorts and mullets do make many, many appearances).
I now have The Soccer Tribe on my coffee table and love to show it off to both soccer fans and non-fans alike. It is, to be sure, not a typical coffee table book, but this uniqueness is one of the things I most value about it. Morris’s book is now, sadly, out of print so it will take some searching to find it. But trust me: it’s worth it.
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Looking back at Morris’s book recently made me think again about some of the funniest of soccer rituals. Having watched so much soccer in my life, I rarely stop to consider the uniqueness of many such rituals, as I am so accustomed to seeing them. It is only in looking at The Soccer Tribe or watching games with friends not familiar with soccer that I remember how unique they are.
The pre- and post-game rituals offer some of the most striking examples. The most interesting pre-game ritual I have seen develop in the past few years is the players walking out to the field with young children in tow. Every Premier League game has these “mascots,” to use the British terminology. The sight of cute little children accompanying sporting superstars to the pitch is something I have not seen in other sports. Perhaps the thought of how Allen Iverson would respond if this happened to him is enough to dissuade the NBA from trying something similar.
On behalf of Steven Gerrard and all overpaid superstars ever treated poorly by four year-olds, Thierry Henry gets revenge on a mascot before a game against Ajax.
In Argentina, four year-olds are clearly over the hill. Most games there involve players carrying out infants to the field. But watching this Argentine spin on the pre-game ritual, one canâ€™t help wonder if this might be a bit too young. The deafening roar of the crowd, the confetti thrown toward them, and the thought that they might be dropped by a sweaty many with strange clothes on has brought several of these young children to tears. And quite why parents trust soccer players, who clearly have other things on their minds right before a game, to not drop their infants is beyond me.
Boca Juniors’ Martin Palmero is lead to the field by young children.
There are also several post-game rituals which are unique to soccer. Players in most sports will exchange some sort of handshake at the end of a match. Soccer players (in big games, at least) take it a step further in exchanging shirts. On occasions when a smaller team players a bigger opponent, less well-known players fight to be able to exchange their shirt with superstars.
The US’s Claudio Reyna and the Czech Republic’s Pavel Nedved exchange shirts at last summer’s World Cup.
Soccer players also have a post-game ritual that I find completely endearing: applauding their supporters. Even in this era of massive money in sports, it is refreshing that professional soccer players recognize their fans after nearly every game by clapping to them. The gesture may be symbolic, but it epitomizes the fact that soccer teams in Europe have historically been clubs to which all belong, not the franchises that reduce the connection between professional athletes in American and their fans.
Sunderland players applaud their fans.
The post-game ritual of applauding fans is given a Japanese spin in that East Asian country. Instead of simply applauding, players there bow to their fans. This has come as a shock to some foreigners who have played in the J-League, but bowing is, of course, prevalent in Japanese society.
When I lived in Japan, I often saw bowing in soccer games. The middle school I worked at had a team whose players would bow both before and after matches to show appreciation to their coaches, opposing players, and referees
Japanese (American) football players bow before a game.
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If a new version of Desmond Morris’s book The Soccer Tribe were to be written, it could certainly include this Japanese and the above Argentine example of soccer rituals. The 20 years of globalization since it was published have brought increased connection among the peoples of the world. In this time, we have been shown the similarities and differences of the rituals of the soccer tribe.