Behind the World Cup Cheers

It's a little hard, living in the United States, to appreciate the full magnitude and power of the World Cup fever that sweeps through most of the rest of the world every four years. When I was in Switzerland during the European Cup a few years ago, crowds clogged the streets of Luzern and horns blared until 5 a.m. the night Portugal beat the Netherlands in the semi-final. Nobody got much sleep. And the winner of that match was Portugal, mind you, not Switzerland ... and it was only the off-year European Cup title. New Yorkers are hard-pressed to pull off that level of excitement even when their home-town Yankees win a World Series.

Why were the Swiss in Luzern so excited about a Portuguese semi-final victory? Beats me. But after Switzerland was knocked out of the competition, Portugal somehow became the next best home town favorite, just as Ghana had the entire stadium in South Africa cheering for it after the other African teams were knocked out of the World Cup running last week. If you can't root for the tribe you love, love the tribe next closest to home that you can root for, or something like that. Poor Uruguay. They never stood a chance with that crowd, even though none of them--at least to my knowledge--had ever done a thing to offend Africa, aside from growing up somewhere else.

On one level, it's fun to see all the fuss. All those crazy spectators, so hysterically "fanatic" about their national teams. The players choking up at the singing of their national anthems. The "do you not have MIRRORS in your house?" outfits that some of the fans wear as a gesture of beyond-reason-or-pride loyalty to the team and cause.

All that intensity does have a dark side, of course. There are any number of instances of team and fan violence as a result of competition taken too far, or uncontrolled anger at an unexpected loss. In 1994, Columbian defender and team captain Andres Escobar was murdered 10 days after he accidentally deflected a ball into his own goal in a game against the U.S., ending Columbia's World Cup hopes (and, rumor had it, costing some drug lords in Columbia huge amounts of gambled money).

But watching the crowds cheering so intensely for their national teams the past few weeks has also made me think of something former NASA astronaut Story Musgrave said to me a couple of months ago. When astronauts started going into space, he said, where they could see "the big blue marble" for the first time and watch continents pass by in minutes, they all thought the images of Earth from space would transform global cooperation and conflict. After all, it was clear to all the international astronauts that the unifying principle of the humans beneath them wasn't a particular home country, race, religion or tribe. It was our shared connection to a more important home known as Planet Earth.

"Buckminster Fuller said that as soon as we can get out there and get a picture of the whole Earth, it will change humanity forever," Musgrave told me. "But it didn't. Why? Because humans are humans, and their tribalism is more important to them than cooperation. There are 30 wars going on in the world this week, as we speak. Humans don't wish to get along, and they don't wish to collaborate. They would rather fight. So you can ask the question: 'Are they ever going to be able to transcend their constitutions and form a peaceful global community and look after the other creatures and Mother Earth?' Well, history would say, they cannot. Because their basic constitution will not allow it."
Certainly, a lot of the World Cup fan behavior would seem to support Musgrave's argument. Granted, soccer is only a game--and a way we've found of channeling our competitive and warring instincts into less lethal activities than war. But the truth remains: we love rooting for a team we deem "ours" against others. And that intense love of tribe does not bode well for international cooperation or a more peaceful post-globalization world.

The New York Times ran a story a few days ago about a new kind of high school elective that's becoming more popular in schools around the country. Developed partly with funding from UNESCO and already popular in Europe, the courses are part of an "International Baccalaureate" program that carries extra weight, like an AP program, in college admissions. The goal of the program is to expose students to advanced courses that place a greater emphasis on integrating multiple perspectives and the international culture and context for ideas, issues and history.

Given that almost every business school in America--and the rest of the world--is currently revising its curriculum to include a greater focus on global contexts, culture and perspectives in an increasingly global economy, one would think that the I.B. degree program would have a lot of support among parents who wish their children to have the best chance of business success in life.

And yet, there is an entire movement opposing the program, in part because of its international focus. A website devoted to the opposition warns of a dangerous and anti-American "hidden curriculum" in the program, and one parent was quoted in the Times article as saying, "When there is a program at the school with a specific agenda, which in this case is the United Nations agenda, I have a problem with it." The United Nations agenda, of course, being to find a non-violent way to resolve conflicts between nations. An agenda developed after two wrenching World Wars had devastated huge populations of the planet.

Nevertheless, there is evidently no lack of parents and people who find it disloyal to spend too much time learning about nations or tribes other than our own. Certainly in any kind of sympathetic or open-minded way that would involve viewing the world through someone else's eyes, or multiple perspectives, instead of just our own. That would be like feeling the pain of the losing team who fell to a lucky ricochet goal shot by the home team in the final seconds of a World Cup match. Takes all the fun out of smashing an opponent to smithereens or getting to be righteous in your celebration of victory.

Our attachment to tribes, nations, and conflict is long-standing and complex, of course. Way back when, we banded into tribes for self-preservation. Those who are like us, we learned, will take care of us. That was, and is, quite comforting for a species that depends on group cooperation for survival. And there are enough animal species who follow this same behavior that Dr. Musgrave may be right. Our attachment to tribal groups ... at whatever level ... may be so ingrained that we will never overcome it. But in saying "I'm for them because they're like me," we are implicitly saying that we're not for the others, because they're ... well, not. And in doing that, we perpetuate a cycle that has led to two World Wars (three, if you count the African war that erupted after the Rwandan genocide--after all, the definition of "world" is, like so many other things, a matter of perspective), as well as the 30 wars Musgrave reports are currently being fought in the world, as we speak.

Much as I hate to contemplate it, because it really does put a damper on the party, the same bold and brassy love of "our team" that fuels the World Cup frenzy is not unrelated to the mindset of parents who see no need for their children to learn about any other culture except their own. It's just a matter of scope and degree. Which is not to say they are one and the same. Some people--indeed, many of the players themselves, who play on club teams with players from other nations in between World Cup championships--can separate sports competition from other issues or endeavors.

But even watching the players, the question remains for me: if push came to shove, who would they side with? Their international club teams? Or their national team? And if the answer is the national team ... what does that say about the promise of globalization to overcome tribal, national and other barriers?

Perhaps the best hope in all this is the I.B. students themselves. The ones eagerly lapping up every piece of international education they can get. The ones who are already more comfortable with cross-tribal relationships than their parents ever were. Maybe we'll always love cheering for our own, and we'll always gravitate more strongly toward some natural or adopted home team than toward accepting a place as a part of one big global family. So maybe the best we can ever hope to do is mitigate that instinct with enough awareness, exposure, curiosity and familiarity to build more bridges across the divides.