May 18, 2020

Nation building through sports

Could the success of a national team be enough to unite a divided nation?

Colombia and Ivory Coast match at the men's FIFA World Cup in 2014.

Danilo Borges/

Sports bring strangers together.

Think of a major global event like the Olympics or the World Cup. Somehow, millions of people are able to set aside differences in politics, religion, and identity and choose to lock arms in support of their national team.

Events like these are more important than serving as mere entertainment. The success of a national team can be a useful tool in nation building, according to a paper in the May issue of the American Economic Review

Authors Emilio Depetris-Chauvin, Ruben Durante, and Filipe Campante examined how the nationalistic fervor around high-stakes football (or “soccer”) games eased tensions in Sub-Saharan countries. They found that Africa Cup of Nations victories weakened people’s ethnic identification, improved attitudes towards other ethnicities, and reduced inter-ethnic violence.

In fact, it was the authors’ own shared love of the sport that led to their partnership on this paper, Depetris-Chauvin said in an email interview. Each of them hails from a football powerhouse—Argentina, Italy, and Brazil—and has personally experienced the rapture of their national team winning the World Cup. They also know the despair that follows a defeat.

[O]ur interest in football and our background in the related literature was the perfect excuse to join forces.  And let me be honest, I had never had so much fun as I did in this project.

Emilio Depetris-Chauvin

“The three of us went through many football-induced shared experiences in our lives,” Depetris-Chauvin said. “Therefore, our interest in football and our background in the related literature was the perfect excuse to join forces.  And let me be honest, I had never had so much fun as I did in this project.” 

Beyond demonstrating the social importance of sports, the findings highlight a potential mechanism for creating national unity in an otherwise fractured and unstable political environment. Depetris-Chauvin pointed to Ivory Coast’s qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup as an example. Under the charismatic on-field leadership of striker Didier Drogba, that qualification would kick off a remarkable eight years for the team as they qualified for three consecutive World Cups. The team’s success was credited by many to have paved the way for a peaceful resolution of the civil war that had ravaged the country for over five years.

One people
Soccer fans in sub-Saharan Africa felt a greater sense of national pride following a victory in the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup tournaments. The chart below shows how individual senses of ethnic identity changed before and after a game. The ethnic identification clearly drops after the game, indicated by the vertical line.
Source: author data


To test this theory empirically, the authors examined survey data across 25 countries that measured feelings of ethnic identification versus national identity. They wondered whether fans would feel more kinship with their fellow citizens following a national team victory in the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup.

That was in fact the case. Matching survey responses with tournament games between 2002 and 2015, the authors found a victory corresponded with a 37 percent drop in the probability someone would have a strong sense of ethnic identity. They were also more likely to trust and interact with people of other ethnicities.

Interestingly, the diversity of the team matters, too. The more ethnically diverse the national team, the greater the effect of a victory.

We interpret this result as suggestive evidence of a ‘role model’ mechanism, whereby victories showcase how inter-ethnic cooperation can lead to important achievements,” Depetris-Chauvin said.

The results suggest that policies that favor emotional participation (such as civic events and celebrations) may be very effective at forging national unity. The “Kumbaya” feelings of these shared experiences may not last long, but it could potentially be enough to open a precious window of opportunity for political dialogue, negotiations, or reforms capable of producing long-lasting solutions.

This is also not to say that the effects would translate to other contexts. The United States seems more divided now than at any point in the past half-century, and those divisions were not much healed by the US Women’s National Team winning the World Cup last year.

Depetris-Chauvin pointed out key differences, including that football is not as popular in America as in sub-Saharan Africa. But he said there was still real social value in the team’s historic achievement.

“I think it could work great as a role model example while priming extraordinary successful women,” he said. “From my own experience, it helped me a lot to show my daughter—she is American and also mad about soccer—that girls can do great things in general, and particularly in soccer. I am not kidding; she now keeps saying that she wants to be the next Alex Morgan.”

“Building Nations Through Shared Experiences: Evidence from African Football” appears in the May issue of the American Economic Review.