Football and War: The Warlike Origins Of The Game

illya mclellanSenior Analyst IOctober 31, 2008

The teams stroll out onto the pitch in a stadium somewhere in the world. The Captain with his armband and the respect of his teammates, or so he hopes. Amongst both teams, there are the players whom the others look to for inspiration and hope.

They are the stars of the modern game, in terms of the warfare of the game they are the "Champions." On the sideline is the Manager, who is, in terms of the warfare of the game, the strategist, the "General."

Who is the Ref? You might ask. He is God. Or in latter times, something like the upholder of Geneva Conventions.

Humanity has always been at war. In fact, we owe the most of the great technological advances we see today to it. There is a part of us that is so primal and driven that we peaceful members of modern society do not experience.

Football and many combative team sports are really just modern expressions of warfare and ritualistic rites of passage.

To really get an idea of how football has replaced old organised warfare, you need to know a bit about how warfare was viewed in the ancient world.

Great warriors were the highly-paid stars of days past and enjoyed the admiration of the people not to mention their kings and the ruling classes.

Great Generals were superstars who could rise to control vast empires and large groups of people. An outstanding example of someone like this is Julius Caesar, who, as a brilliant military tactician, changed the face of the ancient world and the course of history.

Imagine him as manager of a club like Manchester United or Real Madrid. Surely he would guide his charges to the Champions League trophy.

It is in ancient Rome that we get a great comparison between the warfare of times past and the warfare we see on pitches across earth today. The Romans were warlike and organised, and they were used to winning. The exploits of triumphant armies away on campaign were trumpeted on the streets of Rome.

Not only was it beneficial to the morale of the city, but it also meant that the city would eventually benefit from the spoils of the far off conflict.

Much like a city today indirectly or directly benefits from having a successful football side based in its midst.

There was also something that the Romans and other large ancient civilizations did to herald the coming of football in large stadiums before large crowds of people.

They built large stadiums in order to watch their bloodsports.

Humanity and its addiction to the intensity of atmospheric tension created by large groups of people has made it possible for something so simple as grown men chasing a plastic ball around a field to become a representation of the primal urges of humanity.

The crowd and its fervour are relative to the actions of those on the field of play, as those on the field do battle to see who will be the victor and ride away with the spoils.

Cup finals are, in a lot of ways, an almost perfect illustration of the way that football is similar to ancient war.

The two sides fighting it out for the honour of taking the trophy and the spoils with them as they make their way home to celebrate. Second in the cup final is not runner up, but first loser.

Imagine this for an ancient cup match.

Carthage City vs. Roma Wanderers. Carthage with its star player Hannibal, a genius who is almost unstoppable. On the roman side is Scipio, another great who is at the top of his game. Historically, Scipio defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama (the picture above is an engraving of said battle), which led to the downfall of Carthage, but I think it would have made a great cup final.

Football is a funny old game and there are always moments when you see how it is very similar to the warfare of the old world. Or even the warfare of the new world. For when has earth really ever been at peace? Never.

Football truly is the continuation of an ancient theme. That of war and the commitment of some to be better than others.

We need to fight to stay alive and feel the blood pump through our veins and feel the joy of absolute victory and despair of resounding defeat. Emotion is what defines humanity. So next time you see that team stride out onto the field, remember those who have gone before them, for hundreds and hundreds of years.