From Rituals to Geopolitics: Navigating the World Cup

The FIFA World Cup is a monthlong celebration of fútbol, rituals and even international geopolitical relations. As the Brazil World Cup draws to a close, we've got a couple of experts to help us navigate what's happening off the field.

To start, the FIFA World Cup, perhaps more than any other sporting event except the Olympic Games, is rife with rituals. From the way the teams walk on to the field holding the hands of children to the post-game shirt exchange, international soccer is as much ceremony as sport. Psychology professor Cristine Legare explains how today's soccer customs tie to a long history of ritual in sport.

The Argentine national soccer team on the field with children before a match at the 2014 World Cup
As part of international soccer tradition, schoolchildren escort the players onto the field before each match of the World Cup. Here, the Argentine national soccer team lines up with their little buddies on the field to sing their national anthem before a match at the 2014 World Cup. "Soccer is a game of theater and pageantry as much as any other sport. And ritual," former U.S. national team defender Alexi Lalas said in an Associated Press story in 2010. [Image courtesy FIFA World Cup.] 

The 2014 World Cup isn't just an outlet for showcasing national pride, indulging in international competition, and showcasing athletic talent. It also illustrates one of the most curious and pervasive aspects of human behavior ritual. Even the best soccer player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, performs pre-game rituals. Not only does he insist on being the first member of the Portuguese national team to enter the field, he also insists on getting his hair cut right before every game.

If the illusion of control rituals provide give athletes more confidence and reduces anxiety, they may provide a competitive edge.

It may be hard to imagine why either of these behaviors has any bearing on whether Portugal defeats their opponents, but the lack of a transparent cause-and-effect explanation simply doesn't prevent people from engaging in rituals. In fact, the lack of a logical rationale behind these odd, seemingly idiosyncratic behaviors is part of the point. Rituals provide a socially sanctioned opportunity to exert personal control in the face of uncertainty.

The curious pre-game rituals in sport culture are nothing new. Anthropologists have long noted that the use of rituals is often linked to conditions of risk and uncertainty, conditions that high stakes, highly competitive World Cup matches meet. When anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski visited the Trobriand Islands of New Guinea, he observed that Trobrianders rarely relied on ritual when fishing in a reliable and safe lagoon; they described their successes and failures in terms of skill. In contrast, extensive ritual preceded the uncertain and dangerous conditions of deep-sea fishing.

Assistant professor of psychology Cristine Legare
Cristine Legare 

The Trobriand fishermen are not alone in their use of ritual to restore feelings of control when confronted with uncertainty. On college campuses, for instance, up to 70 percent of students employ such strategies to assist with performance on exams and in athletic competitions.

Rituals provide a means for coping with the negative feelings caused by uncertainty due to the belief that there is a relationship between the behavior (Ronaldo's pre-game haircut) and the desired outcome (Portugal's victory in the World Cup).

In 2012, my colleague Andre Souza and I studied Brazilian 'simpatias,' ritualistic remedies that are meant to ward off bad luck and solve problems. We found that the more people perceived randomness or lack of control, the more effective they expected the simpatia rituals to be.

From a psychological perspective, whether or not there is evidence that rituals actually result in a desired outcome isn't driving the behavior. Confidence is often the single most important factor in winning a closely matched game. And if the illusion of control rituals provide give athletes more confidence and reduces anxiety, they may provide a competitive edge.

Cristine Legare is an assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the director of the Cognition, Culture, and Development Lab, where she studies cognitive development, cultural learning and cognitive evolution.

The Hook: The Other Football

Next up, John Hoberman, professor of Germanic Studies, offers his take on the political and economic implications of international sporting competitions. (And you thought it was all just a soccer tournament!) Hoberman appears on The Hook, the weekly news show produced by the Texas Exes.

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