What football fans can learn from geese

'Football is war". I can't remember who said that. Perhaps it was Rinus Michels, the former Dutch soccer coach, also known to his adoring fans as "The General", writes Ian Buruma.

'Football is war". I can't remember who said that. Perhaps it was Rinus Michels, the former Dutch soccer coach, also known to his adoring fans as "The General". In any case, it is true, not literally of course, but as a plausible fiction.

More than most other sports, more than boxing or tennis or cricket, soccer is a theatre of war: territory is defended, or invaded; young men are cheered on to do battle; flags are waved and national anthems sung, and coaches are hailed as brilliant strategists. One of the pleasures of international football is the way revenge can be wreaked on old foes. And for those who grew up in times of peace, football is as close as they get to an experience of collective bellicosity.

There was, to be sure, one occasion when a sporting war became all too real, in the famous "soccer war" which erupted in 1969 after a game between Honduras and El Salvador. It is also true that some football fans do more than wave banners and curse their enemies. Soccer hooligans behave as if they really are at war, and like to draw real blood. Quite a few English hooligans are said to be former squaddies, but even those who are not show a peculiar nostalgia for the old days when the English working classes served as cannon fodder in Europe and beyond. The late Alan Clark MP rather admired the fighting spirit of tattooed bullies who trashed foreign city centres. He, too, had peculiar yearnings.

Some people believe that if only we didn't have football, the violence would stop. They think that football, like violent movies, provokes aggression, which would find no expression without it. This is a somewhat puritanical attitude, as if aggression, like sexual desire or any animal desire, were simply something one should suppress, especially, of course, in others. I would take the opposite view: aggression needs an outlet, and the more it can be ritualised, in sport, or theatre, or anything else that provides a substitute for actual murder, the better.

Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian animal psychologist, had interesting views on this. He had some interesting views on other things, too: the way the Nazi movement would save our civilisation, for example, and on the pernicious influence of Jews on national life. But he knew a great deal about ducks and geese, and wrote a classic book, entitled On Aggression. For this and other works he won the Nobel Prize.

Lorenz observed how geese ritualised their aggression by shows of hostility towards other geese. Females would spur on the ganders in these contests, and when the males had managed to intimidate their opponents, they would come back to their own side to great choruses of triumphant honking. Originally a way for females to select the fittest and thus most desirable partners, this hostility had become a kind of game, played for its own sake. Triumphant honking, the goose variation of "Ingerland!" so to speak, was a way to express togetherness, but also - and here Lorenz is truly fascinating - to deflect aggression between ganders and their female partners on to external enemies. Give this a thought, the next time you repair to the pub to watch the World Cup with your mates.

Although Lorenz admitted to finding animals more interesting, and perhaps better company, than humans, he did spare some thoughts for his own species, too. He noted how domesticated geese often showed pathological behaviour, becoming oversexed and gluttonous, and he worried that domestication would have similar effects on human behaviour. Our comfortable, bourgeois, civilised state, Lorenz thought, offered insufficient outlets for our natural aggression. Hence his flirtation with Nazi vigour. He later regretted this "naive" and "ill-advised" departure, but held on to his beliefs about the bad effects of domestication. The human need for collective enthusiasm, for battle, and for chauvinism, so regrettably exploited by demagogues and tyrants in the past, would have to be satisfied somehow. And Lorenz concluded that sport provided the safest solution.

He was probably right. In fact human beings have always found ways to ritualise aggression. Indeed, the more domesticated we are, and the less we go to war, the more we do this. The Way of the Samurai, often regarded as a typical expression of Japanese militarism, was actually developed during a long period of peace, when warriors had no wars to fight. War became an aesthetic ritual, as with those honking geese, or our own medieval knights jousting to impress the ladies. Bull fighting is another ceremony of violence and death, and so is fox hunting.

Now one might say that making animals into the victims of our own bloodlust is a bad thing, but it seems a minor problem to me if it keeps us from going for each other's throats. I also suspect that concern for the suffering of animals is less important to many opponents of these pastimes than the pleasure others take in them. Tony Banks, a noted friend of the fox, once said that he found it impossible to imagine how anyone could take pleasure in killing animals. Here speaks a true puritan. The key word is "pleasure". It is bad enough that we have aggressive impulses, but taking pleasure in them is a sin.

Banks likes his football, however, and so he should. If only he could be more tolerant of pleasures he cannot imagine. Ritualised aggression is a good and necessary human endeavour, and can be turned into something of grace and beauty: a Beckham free kick no less than a matador's pass in the bull ring, or indeed a Picasso painting. In many ways, sport, as well as art, with their rituals of worship and ceremonies of death, overlap with religion. All deal with potentially dangerous instincts, which we can control, but should never deny, for they can make us do our worst, but also our best.


Ian Buruma

The GuardianTramp

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