Does Qualifying For The World Cup Make Countries More Nationalistic And Aggressive?


American soccer fans during a recent match against Belize. (Credit: AP)

It’s not exactly a secret that international soccer brings out nationalist tendencies in people. The English have a unique talent for putting this nationalism on display. A popular English chant when they play Germany — “One World Cup and two World Wars, doo dah, doo dah” — reminds the Germans of English superiority both on the pitch and on the battlefield. Another chanted at Argentina during the World Cup a decade ago — “Where is your navy? At the bottom of the sea!” — reminds the Argentinians of the destruction of the Falklands War. I don’t mean to slander the English, because it isn’t just them. It’s just that they have seemingly mastered both chanting and nationalism when it comes to their beloved and often beleaguered national football team.

But plenty of studies have measured the increased nationalism that occurs during international sporting events. Now, Cal-Berkeley Ph.D. student Andrew Bertoli has found that the increased nationalism in countries that qualify for the World Cup leads to a marked uptick in nationalistic aggression. As Bertoli details in a new working paper flagged by The Monkey Cage, teams that barely qualified for the World Cup showed larger increases in nationalism and took more aggressive military actions in the three years following qualification than did teams that failed to qualify:

Not only did those countries take more military actions, their actions “tended to be more violent,” Bertoli found. And they also happened more in non-democratic countries, which experienced larger boosts in nationalistic aggression following these events than their democratic counterparts even when the Soviet Union was removed from the equation.

I tend to believe that nationalism induced by sports is a good thing when it’s constrained, a way for people to channel pride in their country toward a positive outcome like a World Cup victory as opposed to a negative one like war. We already know that nationalism around sporting events can produce positive social ends — studies have shown that hosting or succeeding in the World Cup can have positive effects on happiness and public health. But even though I’d like to see more research on the issue, Bertoli’s findings seem rather intuitive, and it’s worth remembering that nationalism induced by sports or anything else is often easily exploited in a way that can have damaging effects both inside our own societies and on other societies too.

It’s impossible remove all of the nationalist feelings that surround sports — think, for a second, about the possibility of a Brazil-Portugal match in Sao Paulo at the 2014 World Cup — and we shouldn’t want to. But perhaps instead of thinking of sports as a proxy for the real wars we fight, we might benefit from looking at them simply as separate battles for a different sort of superiority. It’s perfectly fine when two countries choose to hate each other on the field, as long as they realize that it doesn’t mean they have to hate each other, or fight each other, off of it too.