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Reaching back in time


Why football is the most popular sport in the world
Desmond Morris Writer
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My son loves sport and he wanted to go to football. And I took him to a football match and I remember looking around and thinking, why are all these adult human beings getting so excited over a simple ball game like this? I mean, what's going on here? This is... I mean, there were, there were grown men shouting and when a goal was scored, you'd think they'd won the lottery. It was extraordinary. The passion that went into this, what was really just a child's game of kicking a ball about. And I remember thinking, there's something here for the manwatcher, something here for the human student of animal behaviour, of the human animal behaviour. And I wrote a book called The Soccer Tribe in which I looked at the tribal behaviour of footballers and I became a director of a football club in order to penetrate that field and I got into that world and studied it very closely and analysed everything.

And, to cut a long story short, it was, it was clear to me that what was happening was that the old hunting drive that our species has, which we evolved with over a million years and which became deeply ingrained in us, needs some sort of expression. And because we get our food from a supermarket now and we don't have to go out and hunt it anymore, the hunting drive is sort of left floating around, looking for some outlet. And it occurred to me that what's happening is that when the ball goes into the net, this is a symbolic kill; this is the moment when the hunters – and the hunters, of course, are our... the club's football team, our own team, that are our champion – they've been hunting for this goal and they finally scored it. If there wasn't an opposing team, it would be too easy. So you have to have... you have to make it difficult so... and the other team are reciprocating in the opposite direction. And people have called it warfare, but it... symbolic warfare, but I think it's more symbolic hunting because when you score that goal, that moment of triumph when you've made your kill, eventually what happens – you win a cup and you have a feast and you go feast and you parade around with this cup. And it's... the whole thing is a symbolic hunt.

And that's why it has such passionate importance for so many millions of people all over the world. And why it's also male-dominated although, of course, women are excited as well. But it's... and then I started to look at other sports and I thought, the extraordinary thing is that all sport involves either chasing or aiming, and these are the two elements of sport. Football has both; some just have the chase and some have just the aim. Snooker is just aiming and... or darts is just aiming and motor racing is... or horseracing is just chasing. But football has it all. It has both the hunting pack and it has the cooperation between the hunters and it has the kill and it has the chase and it has the aiming. And so it's got it all and that's why it's the most popular sport in the world.

Born in Wiltshire, UK in 1928, Desmond Morris had a strong interest in natural history from his boyhood. Later, as an undergraduate, he studied zoology, and after obtaining a First Class Honours Degree from the University of Birmingham, he moved to the Oxford University Zoology Department where he began his research into animal behaviour for his doctorate thesis. In 1957, having moved to London, Morris famously organised an exhibition at the ICA of art work created by Congo the chimpanzee. Morris's engagement with the visual arts remains strong and he has often exhibited many of his own paintings since 1950 when his paintings went on show alongside those of the surrealist painter, Jean MirĂ³. 1950 was also the year when Morris began his career in TV creating and presenting Zootime and Life in the Animal World. Soon after this, he began work on a book that has proved a huge best-seller, The Naked Ape. Focusing on human behaviour, it was the first in a series of books in which the author observes humans primarily as a species of animal. Today, Desmond Morris has lost none of his inquisitiveness and continues to observe and write about what he sees in the world around him.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: football, tribal behaviour, hunting, sport

Duration: 3 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014