Those of us who call ourselves British and were of age in 1990 will remember the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit and his so-called “cricket test.” Immigrants from India, Pakistan, and the West Indies, said Tebbit, should support teams from Britain and not from their countries of origin or ancestry. Anyone who didn’t shouldn’t consider themselves British. “Which side do they cheer for?” Tebbit asked. “It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”
I was reminded of Tebbit’s test on a recent visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The hotel bartender, hearing my accent, told me his favorite soccer team was Manchester United. I know little about soccer, but enough to know that Manchester United is a Premier League club, possibly the Premier League club, and attracts a global following—659 million fans, according to data provided by a market-research company hired by the team. The company reckoned there were 108 million Man U fans in China, 35 million in India, 33 million in Nigeria. Many treated the overall figure with skepticism, but nobody doubted that a soccer club based in a northern English city had achieved a massive international fan base. The young bartender was from Mexico, an immigrant to the United States, and had never been to Britain. I asked him why he supported the team, and he said he was a big fan of Wayne Rooney. He admitted, though, that a friend had recently been talking to him about another British team, Aston Villa, and he was thinking that he might switch allegiance.
I lived in England during the 1970s. In those days, you didn’t choose which team to support as if you were picking from a menu; you supported the team where you lived. You might support a club in a town or city where you were born or where you’d spent part of your life, but that was as far as it went. This is why, on questions of allegiance, people often talk about soccer as a “tribal” game. Sociologists used the word “tribe” particularly when hooliganism in British soccer reached its height in the 1980s. A tribe is something you’re born into, that you defend. The soccer violence of the 1980s was carried out by tribes of young men who traveled from game to game and into each other’s territory to wage war.
To talk to the bartender in Santa Fe was to hear something entirely different. Here was someone choosing the tribe to which he wished to belong. What’s more, the tribe welcomed him and its tens of millions of global members. As the BBC noted, the announcement of Manchester United’s massive fan base coincided with the launch of a share offering on the New York Stock Exchange. The team was looking for new sponsors who’d be excited by the size of its potential reach. Manchester United would benefit from all these additional members to its tribe.
Way back, tribes were key to survival. Humans joined into groups, pooled labor, shared care of their offspring, protected each other from wild animals and from rival tribes. Tribes were about resources—maximizing, protecting, sharing. You were a member of your tribe by birthright, typically by being born to other members of the tribe and in the tribal lands. But when it was beneficial, the tribe welcomed more people in; at other times, it might decide that limiting membership was in its best interests. The Jim Crow “one drop” rule, by which a person’s race (in this case, read “tribe”) was determined according to whether they possessed a single drop of African blood, is a case in point.