There was once a jungle warrior known—roughly translated—as The Great Captain. He maintained an army whose only charge was to defend The Sacred Temple. The field at the temple’s mouth was filled with his fierce warriors, painted in red and black, who fought with all their hearts against outsiders and invaders who would take the hallowed place. Though small, square and made of simple stone with a tiny wooden door, his people believed that no one should set foot in The Sacred Temple, especially tribes from the surrounding ridgelines and valleys. The temple contained no riches or spiritual significance, though this fact had been long forgotten. The people had simply defended its gates for centuries and its protection had become the bedrock of their hearts and minds.
One day an enemy army from a northern tribe charged the field and The Great Captain and his army set to battle. They fought under the blazing equatorial sun, their red and black warpaint smearing and weaving with the blood of the fallen, turning the gleaming dance of the emerald fields to a heavy shadow. After many hours of combat, one enemy soldier, painted in yellow and orange, sprang free of the last line of defense.
He charged the Sacred Temple.
The Great Captain saw him and began pursuit; their two headings coming together like the point of an arrow at the temple’s wooden door. They collided and clashed and fought in the long jungle grass; The Great Captain was all that stood between the invader and the door to his people’s soul.
Eventually, the enemy soldier missed with a swipe of his dagger and stumbled forward and The Great Captain saw his chance to slay the treacherous offender. He raised his jeweled sword and exploded his arms towards the yellow and orange paint of the exposed chest.
But the enemy soldier—a strange awareness coming to him from Unseen Places—stepped aside. The Great Captain lurched and tripped as his target vanished from his sites, and he crashed into the wooden door, splintering the planks and releasing the stale air that hadn’t felt light’s warming grip for a thousand years.
The enemy soldier stepped over the stunned captain and remnants of shattered wood, looked inside the empty walls and at bare dirt floor of The Sacred Temple, and laughed. The fighting armies looked up from the field and tense shoulders, painted in red and black, and yellow and orange, went slack. The need for combat was over. The temple had been cracked. There was no treasure to take, and so with the violation of this sacred place now complete, there was no reason to fight. They wandered off the field and back into the jungle, never looking at The Great Captain on his back, clutching his face, trying to contain glassy tears of shame.
Days later, after the village learned the disgraceful news, The Great Captain was found in his bed, his arms and legs tied down with ropes, his throat opened from ear to ear and a splinter of old wood laid on his broad but lifeless chest, smudged with red and black warpaint.
In the 1994 World Cup, the United States played against Columbia in the Group Phase. During the game, John Harks (now the color commentator for US games) played a ball in from midfield towards the Columbian goal. Defender Andres Escobar, the Colombian captain and moral bedrock of the team, sprinting in his yellow jersey and bright blue shorts, attempted to clear the attack. But the ball caught a funny angle and Escobar misjudged the redirect, sending the ball backwards and into his own net for the worst offense in soccer—an Own Goal. The Red, White and Blue went on to win the game 2-1 and Columbia was eliminated from the World Cup.
Later that week, having returned home to Colombia from the disgraceful loss, Escobar was shot to death as he walked down the street to get a beer. His assassin, with hate and sarcasm in his voice, yelled “Goal!” as he pulled the trigger twelve times.
As I’ve watched the proceedings of the World Cup these past couple weeks, I’ve wondered if we’re seeing the most pervasive, non-violent manifestation of global tribalism. The development of the tribe, the community, the society is tangled in the roots of our psyche. We love groups and categories, especially as they relate to the people around us—at its most basic levels, it’s a tool for our brains to understand the world. We naturally divide and take cross sections of society and put them in their boxes—like political parties, same-market firms and school rivalries. Tribalism creates an Us and Them, and looks at Them with a mix of disdain and aggression while developing a prideful, and often irrational defense of “Us-ness.”
If we assume that geopolitical borders are what create modern global tribes, and I will concede that myriad cultures would disagree with that idea, then cheering our nation in sport harks back to our early dependencies as humans. Old tribalism was built on one society maintaining its dominance over another, fueled by the inherent passion of a people to preserve stories, values and traditions, but manifesting itself in warfare. Modern warfare, with its tragic, abstract and commercial causes, is its own increasingly strange beast; and it seems soccer has backfilled the need for a global competitive currency between peoples.
It converts easily—the object of the game is simple: put the ball in the net. We have the pitch, the field, the coliseum floor reverberating under the chants of the masses. We have the players, the soldiers, the captains, carrying the weight of a people’s inherent hope on the shoulders of their many-colored, national jerseys. And we have the sacred temple, the goal, the box of national pride, whose defense is paramount and whose violation is catastrophic. Soccer is just a game—a “beautiful game,” as many say—but the complexity of its beauty lies in far more ancient places than what comes across in the highlights each night.
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at