Might the World Cup, which starts this week, reduce ethnic divisions and political violence? Absolutely. To see why, we have to back up a bit.
All over the world, many people closely identify with their religion, their race or their ethnicity — and much less with their country.
That can be a serious problem. When people separate themselves from their fellow citizens, they tend to distrust each other. They become less able to address shared challenges. They regard each other as strangers — and, in extreme cases, as enemies.
Aware of that risk, national leaders often try to strengthen people’s sense of national identity. In the United States, Independence Day is an effort to do that. But does it really help? Does anything?
South Africa’s Nelson Mandela thought so. In 1985, he rallied his nation around its rugby team, even though rugby had, by tradition, been an Afrikaner sport, closely associated with support for apartheid; black people had often rooted for the opposing team.
When Mandela embraced the team and its despised symbol, the springbok, he unified a divided nation.
His support was a masterstroke because it announced to those who were most suspicious of him: We are all South Africans, and we have that in common.
A new study, involving sub-Saharan Africa, demonstrates that Mandela was onto something universal: National sports teams can combat the effects of ethnic, racial and religion differences. That proposition is important in itself. It also offers broader lessons about how to increase unity and reduce division.
Conducted by an international team of economists — Emilio Depetris-Chauvin, Ruben Durante and Filipe R. Campante — the study explores how a victory by the national soccer team affects people’s sense of ethnic identity.
To do that, the authors matched data from four waves of the Afrobarometer survey (including 24 countries in sub-Saharan Africa) with results from about 70 soccer matches from 2002 to 2013. Fortuitously, the survey includes questions about how people identify themselves: “Let us suppose that you had to choose between being a [National] and being a [respondent’s ethnic group]. Which of these two groups do you feel most strongly attached to?” The survey also includes questions about trust.
The researchers’ central finding is stark: In the aftermath of a victory, citizens are more likely to embrace a national identity, and their sense of ethnic identity is reduced. The effect is big: a 20 percent reduction in the probability that people will self-identify in ethnic terms.
Depetris-Chauvin and his colleagues also find that when their national team wins, people show a higher level of trust in those with different ethnic identities. You might think that’s a kind of euphoria effect, but if so you would be wrong. Wins by the national team do not increase optimism about the economy or support for the current government.
Survey evidence is informative, but it’s reasonable to ask whether it means anything in terms of actual behavior. That’s where Depetris-Chauvin and his colleagues produce their most interesting finding. They asked: What is the effect of soccer success on violence and civil conflict?
Specifically, they explored whether nations whose teams narrowly succeeded in making the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations experienced different levels of conflict from nations whose teams narrowly failed to qualify. Their data set included information on the date, location and severity of episodes of political violence, including rebel groups, civilians, militias or the government.
Stunningly, they found that nations whose teams made the finals showed significantly lower levels of conflict and violence within their borders than nations whose teams did not make the finals — and that the comparatively lower levels of conflict and violence persisted for a full six months after the successful event.
World Cup players have enough pressure on them, but we now have to add this: Victory in sports can dampen national divisions, increase trust and decrease violence. But the broader lesson extends well beyond sports.
Highly publicized events, inculcating a sense of national pride, can increase the likelihood that people will see themselves as fellow citizens, involved in a common endeavor. For nations that now face serious internal divisions, that’s a challenge — and an opportunity.