16/06/2014 10:40 BST | Updated 12/08/2014 06:59 BST

Why We Should Be Grateful to Football: Sport and the Decline of Conflict


If you're not a football fan, the next four weeks or so are going to be hard going, as the World Cup takes over the nation's (if not the world's) collective consciousness. For non-footballing types, it might be difficult to understand what all the fuss is about. After all, it's just 22 men kicking a ball around a field. Why so much money? Why so much media attention? Why so many grown men treating this game as if it's a matter of life and death?

I'm not a big football fan either, but, as a psychologist, I'm aware that the game carries a lot more weight than may be at first apparent. In fact, I believe that the world as a whole has a great deal to thank football for, because of the social and psychological benefits it has brought over the last 100 years or so.

The Moral Equivalent

In 1910, shortly before his death, the psychologist William James wrote an essay called The Moral Equivalent of War, in which he attempted to understand the human race's apparent love of warfare. James argued that this was because of its positive psychological effects. Put simply, war made people feel good. It made them feel more alert and alive, and allowed the expression of qualities like discipline, courage, and self-sacrifice. It also created a powerful sense of community, binding people together against a common threat.

James' argued that the human race urgently needs to find an activity which has the same positive effects of warfare, but which doesn't involve the same devastation--this is what he means by "moral equivalent." Perhaps disappointingly, he is not very clear about what this might be. But from our vantage point in history, there is an obvious contender: sport.

Sport satisfies most of the same psychological needs which James identified. Playing in and watching a sports match is an experience of passionate engagement. It provides a sense of unity too. For football fans, their club is part of their identity, and gives them a sense of allegiance and belonging. Particularly for participants, sport also provides a context for heroism, a sense of urgency and drama where you can display courage and skill.

The Decline of Warfare

There is some strong evidence suggesting that sport (particularly football) has been effective as this 'moral equivalent' of war, and led to decline in conflict.

In the second half of the 19th century, my home city of Manchester was gripped by an epidemic of youth gangs and knife crime. Large parts of the city were unsafe, as pedestrians could easily be caught up in fighting, and were often randomly attacked. But during the 1890s, a small number of enlightened people set up "working lads' clubs" throughout the city, which gave the poorest slum youths access to sport and recreation. This led to a new craze for football that spread rapidly through the city. (Indeed, it was during this decade that Manchester's two famous modern soccer teams--Manchester United and Manchester City--were originally established.) Youths who had previously fought against each other in gangs were soon "fighting" each other in football teams, both in "street football" and in organized games through the lads' clubs. The psychological needs which had given rise to gang membership and conflict were now being channeled into sport. This brought a massive reduction in actual conflict and violence.

The same principle has been applied in the modern world too. In Columbia and Brazil, for example, the promotion of soccer in areas of high gang activity has led to a significant reduction in crime and violence.

On a global scale, the last 75 years have seen a steady ongoing decline in the number of deaths due to group conflict in the world (1). Since the Second World War, there has been a massive reduction in international conflict. In particular, the last 25-30 years have been by far the least war-afflicted in recent history, and have seen a correspondingly low number of casualties (2).

Why has the world become more peaceful? Some important factors may include the demise of Communist Bloc, increased international trade and commerce, and international peacekeeping forces. But sport is surely an important factor too. It's probably not a coincidence that, over these last 75 years, sport has becoming massively popular throughout the world - and football most of all. The intoxication which once came from warfare can be gained from following your country at the World Cup. The sense of community which warfare brings can now be gained following your football club or national team. And for individuals, the heroism and alive-ness as a soldier can be gained from - well, kicking a ball around a piece of grass with 21 other individuals.

But of course, to adopt a famous quote by the ex-Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, 'I can assure you, it is much, much more important than that.'


(1) Global conflict trends, 2014. Measuring systemic peace.

(2) Human security research project, 2006. Human security brief, 2006.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity.