If soccer had not existed we would - as in the case of God - have had to invent it. Indeed, in view of all the hatred and bloodshed generated by gods and their religions, you have to wonder sometimes which of the two, God or soccer, has been most beneficial to humanity. Religion has generated far more hatred and cruelty than any soccer match, however heated the rivalries and emotions involved - a Madrid-Barça match, for example. Or even Celtic-Rangers.
Everyone feels more or less the need to vent their passions in a field that is wider and more grandiose than the small ambit of daily necessity. Every human being's identity is defined by his family and forebears, but also in terms of nation, ideology and religion. A far more recent phenomenon is that of satisfying the need of collective belonging under the colors of a soccer team. We all know and have felt the rage that soccer can generate, but it seldom ends in violence and death, much less in war - with rather rare exceptions, such as the famous soccer war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.
If the Boston bombers Dzhokar and Tamarlan Tsarnaev had invested their energies, frustrations and juvenile resentments in the banal enthusiasms of sport; if their enemy had been Real Madrid or Manchester United (or, supposing they were into baseball, the New York Yankees); we may reasonably suppose that the bombings would never have happened. It is by no means a far-fetched proposition to assert that, thanks to soccer, the world is less violent and cruel than it would be without it. Millions and millions of people - though more men than women, needless to say - channel their inevitable tribal antagonisms via soccer. They make the team's triumphs and defeats, the team's glories and humiliations, all their own, in much the same way as the brothers Tsarnaev made their own the triumphs and defeats, the glories and humiliations (in this case more the latter than the former) of their religion and their homeland. The chances of fate lead people down one road or the other. The happy difference is that the fanatic passions of soccer are expressed in cheering or wailing, in passing euphoria or pain; while the resentments, instead of festering and simmering away for years or centuries, are dissolved and purged in the hope of a favorable result next week or next season.
War by civilized means
There is always the possibility of redemption in soccer, and one never reaches that extreme of zero empathy with one's neighbor that leads to cases like Boston, where you place a couple of explosive devices in the middle of a crowd, aware that you are about to cause atrocious suffering in other people, by reason of which you feel absolutely nothing. Except, perhaps, a grotesque sensation of retribution and triumph.
It is true that during a match between Real Madrid and Barcelona the degree of fellow-creature empathy between rival fans descends to very low levels, but the dehumanization of the rival has never arrived at such a point as to deliberately plan the death of the other, and of their family. Soccer, as they say, is war, even massacre at times, but by other, more civilized means.
I have often commented on the way soccer serves as a sort of therapy for nations. Frightening incidents such as that of the attack in Boston remind us once again of the positive influence exerted by the world's greatest mass phenomenon - which, however much sound and fury it may generate, contributes to peace. Thanks be to God (or to the people who got together in a London pub about 150 years ago) for inventing it.