War Games: the Caveman Within

In his essay ‘The Sporting Spirit’ George Orwell famously wrote,

“[Sport] is war minus the shooting”

He was writing in the mid 20th century. Orwell claimed that ‘serious’ sport as he put it was always competitive, ruthless and extremely aggressive thanks to spectators venting their frustration and energy in attempts to help defeat opponents by means of intimidation and foul play. His observation was that the manner of victory was obsolete; maintaining prestige was the only imperative. Fans felt compelled to fight alongside the sportsman to improve chances of victory. An aggressive atmosphere was therefore a natural bi-product of competitive sport.

Orwell’s comparison of Sport to War is appropriate, but not complete in explanation. The simple sadistic bloodlust that Orwell claimed to be a motivation of the working man would naturally point towards interest in martial arts. But when it comes to Football, the fascination is more abstract. We are all products of evolution, and in spite (or maybe because of) the expectations of modern society, we love activities that simulate the primitive, tribal existence of our ancestors. At the end of the day, our hormones are the same ones that helped the first homo-sapiens survive 50,000 years ago. We share the same basic emotions, fears and desires. But modern life with laptops and flow-charts and aspirin and cufflinks and traffic wardens and credit cards and home insurance limits the possibilities for us to exhibit our primitive selves. This does not satisfy the caveman-ego within, because the caveman never dealt with such matters. After a week of conformity in their jobs, people need release, a place to be primal. Football games are popular because they are one of the few remaining places in modern society that simulate tribal life.

Lechia Gdansk Ultras

Picture this. The outsider tribe arrives at your village in huge numbers ready to attack. They have their colours, their songs (their language if you like), they wave their flags, they beat a drum monotonously to signal their arrival and to scare you. You and your tribesmen must unite in order to fight off this intruder. Your colours, your songs, your flags, your drum, your behaviour all work to intimidate the enemy and to demonstrate the size and ferocity of your army. There is now nothing separating your two tribes except a short stretch of barren earth which will become your battleground. Sound familiar? Terrace behaviour has evolved to replicate what it would’ve been like to fight on behalf of your tribe.

Steaua Ultras

The Football ground is a refuge for the caveman within us. The antagonism and aggression that exists in the sport remains a huge attraction for many and will not go away. Your neighbour, your partner, your manager, your intern, your barman or your taxi-driver all ply their trade, pay their taxes and obey the law. But these great people are still subject to their primitive urges and feelings, and we have to acknowledge that it is healthy for human beings to express those urges and feelings from time to time. Their aggression on the terrace does not make them bad people. Policy makers need to understand and appreciate this. Sports governing bodies and politicians attacking Football fans and trying to stamp out the aggression will result in these primitive urges being bottled up and potentially released at unsafe or inappropriate times, which could result in danger or harm. We need to give the everyday man the opportunity to get it out of his system, and Football is a safe way to do it.

Orwell was correct. Sport is war minus the shooting. But not quite the way in which he explained it.


Orwell, G. (1950) Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. London: Secker and Warburg.

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