Paris - The World Cup is the holy grail and Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the prophets - it's not just a game for the hundreds of thousands of football fans heading for Brazil.
A growing body of scholars see football playing an under-appreciated role as keeper of society's well-being - providing a sense of identity with an almost religious role.
The late Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said that football is more important than “life and death”. But Pele's “Beautiful Game” may also be providing a healthy outlet for tribalistic aggression.
“It provides you with an opportunity to side with your country without being violent to another. So in that way it does replace war,” said David Ranc, a French sociologist who specialises in group identity in football.
“It is a non-violent way of resolving conflict ... and taking sides where there is not that much at stake.”
Ahead of the June 12 start to the World Cup, fans are kitting themselves out with wigs, T-shirts, boas and other regalia, and rehearsing the lyrics to patriotic anthems. All is intended to put up a united national front either at home or in Brazil.
Rather than mere nationalistic zeal, the behaviour may be symptomatic of a deeply entrenched desire to belong, the experts said.
“Identification with a sports team can provide people with an important identity prop, ...a sense of belonging in what would otherwise be an isolated existence,” according to Eric Dunning, a sports sociologist with the University of Leicester.
“It can help to give people a sense of continuity and purpose in contexts which are highly impersonal and beset by what many experience as a bewildering pace of change.”
For some, this can even take on religious overtones.
“The fans of a football team form a community of believers that is characterised by distinctively religious forms of behaviour,” sports sociologist Gunter Gebauer of the Free University of Berlin told AFP.
It is not uncommon for fans to turn their bedrooms into football shrines, and “the saints are their team's players, for whom they will make harrowing pilgrimages”.
Dunning added that sport may have replaced some of the functions once performed by religion.
“It may in part be catering for a type of need which, for increasing numbers of people, is not met elsewhere in the increasingly secular and scientific societies of our age,” he writes in his book Sport Matters.
Despite high emotions, deep hostility to rival teams and the often crushing disappointment that comes with defeat, football matches, overall, are unifying social events, the experts said.
Apart, that is, from outbursts of fan violence which they argue are rare given the huge numbers who watch games around the world every day.
In fact, sports like football developed at pace with civilisation and “came to embody the elimination of some forms of physical violence and the general demand that participants should exercise stricter self-control in regard to physical contact,” Dunning said.
Added Ranc, hooliganism is more a function of social inequality than a product of sports rivalry.
“When you study violence in football, it has to do with people who are losing ground socially... people who are marginalised, ostracised, described as an underclass. It has a lot to do with the social climate.”
Football allows people from different social and economic spheres to meet and bond around a common passion, experts said.
And one of the things that binds them is the sport's perceived ability to create heroes like Pele, Portugal star Ronaldo and Argentina's Messi, from nothing.
“The stories told in sports are not pure fantasies; individuals who were previously powerless really are elevated, they really do win fame and fortune by their own strength and are thereby allowed to play a role in society that is otherwise closed off to them,” said Gebauer.
These factors all contribute to the sport's popularity.
But there is also the speed and skill on display, the excitement it generates, the fact that football is easy to play almost anywhere, does not require specialised equipment, and has relatively simple rules.
“Of course, other sports possess some of the characteristics listed here, but arguably only soccer has them all,” according to Dunning. - AFP