Philip Descola: "Among the Achuar, a football match must end with a parity score"

Philippe Descola, one of the greatest contemporary anthropologists, lived alongside the Achuar, an animist people recognized as one of the thirteen indigenous nationalities of Ecuador. He recounts this astonishing relationship to football in a book entitled Is Sport a Game?.

The Achuar have an original way of playing football, you say.
What strikes first is that there don’t seem to be any particular tactics or strategies, everyone is chasing the ball, including the goalkeeper! And then the number of players is fluctuating, which generates an unbalanced relationship between the two teams: there may very well be five on one side and ten on the other… In fact, there is something like an absence total rules. What matters is above all to participate in a collective game, together, in which the ball is ultimately only a pretext for carrying out a common action, not the stake of a competition.

“The Achuar will necessarily end the match with a tie, whatever happens! Above all, it is not a question of one of the camps triumphing over the other, there must not be one team humiliated by another. »

But is the goal still to score goals, anyway?
Yes, but not necessarily to win, since the Achuar will necessarily end the match with a tie, no matter what! Above all, it is not a question of one of the camps triumphing over the other, there must not be one team humiliated by another. There is not at all this spirit of competition, the event has rather the aspects of a game, even of a collective ritual. They are not the only ones to view ball games this way: in The Wild ThoughtClaude Lévi-Strauss told how the Gahuku-Gama, in New Guinea, made it a point of honor to finish the matches on a score of “parity”, so that there was no inequality in the end.

Can we still call it sport, then?
It certainly sounds more like a form of gambling, but the Achuar don’t really have a term for it, anyway. Sport, in the sense of a fun activity that mobilizes physical abilities, is a concept recently imported to them. And they don’t necessarily need it to exert themselves physically: the Achuar have very intense activities, such as abattis, during which they have to cut down trees one meter in diameter, with an axe… Similarly, they can go hunting from 6 a.m. until evening, and gallop everywhere, without ever complaining. And yet, something very curious, after football matches, they all came to see me to ask me for aspirin because they were hurting all over… As if football was still something relatively new for them to feel the physical effects, and allow themselves to express it – where it would have been very frowned upon to complain after a crash.

The Achuar are also an animist people, that is to say, they consider that the non-human beings around them are also animated by a soul. Could this also explain their different relationship to competition?
In animism, relationships with plants or animals are person-to-person relationships. This induces quite specific behaviors at the time of predation, whether through hunting or fishing for example, which often play an important role in animist societies. Hunting is not just about shooting the animal, you first have to use trickery to find it and approach it. By the seduction of the soul of the animal and by the incantations that he will address to the spirit master of the game, the hunter tries to make himself accepted by the animal, but he must also put himself in his place and plan his movements, for, ultimately, To kill him. He must also know how to control himself, not to hunt in excess, at the risk otherwise of displeasing the spirit master of the game and of paying the consequences, by disease or snake bites. We are in the order of a clinch, such as we can find it rather on the side of boxing or fencing, for example, with an adversary whose reactions must be foreseen at all times. The Achuar are obsessed with self-control, and this is something quite common to Amazonian peoples, in general.

“It helps to understand the particular acculturation of the Achuar to football, it is not the steamroller of Western culture. We are not in Paris, Milwaukee or even Rio de Janeiro. »

When and how did football finally come to their home, deep in the Amazon rainforest?
This happens in the early 1970s, with the first bilingual schools. The Achuar are still relatively independent of the Ecuadorian nation-state to which they belong, but they have nonetheless come to benefit from a number of social policies. In this case, teachers from a neighboring ethnic group speaking a fairly close dialect, the Shuar, were employed to develop bilingual education, and it was they who introduced football, which itself came from missionary boarding schools. The Shuar are closer to the colonization front and therefore much more integrated into national society, they live with settlers, they have television, so the enthusiasm for football is greater there. But this helps to understand the particular acculturation of the Achuar to football, it is not the steamroller of Western culture. We are not in Paris, Milwaukee or even Rio de Janeiro. Ecuador is a very mixed country, with a large component of Andean indigenous populations. Football is one of those things, along with volleyball too, which have unfolded and spread in a hybrid way, just as the Ecuadorian culture itself is hybrid.

You did your very first pitch on site between 1976 and 1978: do you have any memories of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina?
None, because at the time, the Achuar had no way of following the matches. For a long time, moreover, the Achuar had only the radio and had never seen a football match… So they were playing a game that they had no idea what it looked like elsewhere!

And the upcoming World Cup, in Qatar, are they going to watch it?
Now, the youngest have a secondary education, they have computers and mobile phones and therefore they are connected to the world. But I’m not sure that there is real aficionado enthusiasm…

“In Ecuador, the enthusiasm is much greater for the clubs, we will first support the local team, or the city where we live. »

Even if the national team of Ecuador participates?
In Ecuador, the enthusiasm is much greater for the clubs, we will first support the local team, or the city where we live, Guayaquil, Quito, Cuenca, etc. This is because the nation-state is still relatively weak, still in formation. It is still the regional scale that takes precedence. That’s why we first follow the local teams, because people identify first and foremost with these small units.

But what does it mean that even the Achuar are no strangers to football? That the round ball is today the most shared contemporary object in the world?
It is likely, there is little doubt that football is the universal sport par excellence. The worldwide notoriety of certain figures in this sport is quite simply extraordinary. I’ve traveled to quite a few foreign countries during my career, and the first thing people say to us when they say we’re French is Zidane!

“Durkheim was interested in the emotional form that the sacred can take in the contemporary world. Here too, major football matches are the best illustration of this. How to forget the clamor that had sprung from Paris, during the victory in 1998? »

And how does the anthropologist that you are explain this, such universality?
I will be careful because anthropologists are empiricists, they always make decisions based on field surveys… But what I suspect is that the question of rules played an important role. Football is very simple to understand, as much as it is easy to organise. Historically, this explains why it was one of the sports that developed the fastest, at the time of colonization. Conversely, I remember being at an American football game with a friend, the great anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who was trying to explain to me the rules and everything that happened on the field… but I I had a hard time understanding, honestly! It’s a very curious sport, which works in fits and starts, where football is much more fluid and instinctive. And then there is a very strong identification mechanism in football. This is what the anthropologist Gregory Bateson formulates under the concept of “complementary schismogenesis” : this observation that the staging of an opposition between two people or two groups will help to freeze these same people in their identity, and even to reinforce it by contrast. It is an absolutely universal phenomenon, and in many areas, but football is a remarkable example. And it is also what then contributes to these great moments of collective exaltation, this “effervescence of rituals” as Durkheim said when he was interested in the emotional form that the sacred can take in the contemporary world. Here too, major football matches are the best illustration of this. How to forget the clamor that had sprung from Paris, during the victory in 1998?

Interview by Barnabé Binctin
To read : Is Sport a Game? Philippe Descola, ed. Robert Laffont, 2022.

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