As the Rugby World Cup final approaches, French writer Yves Bourdillon notes that the sport is popular almost exclusively in democratic countries. The reason? Its Anglo-Saxon origins, the complexity of its rules and its values, a miracle of balance between individualism and collective spirit.
PARIS — The Rugby World Cup has an unusual, if not unique, feature among major national team competitions: all 20 participants are free-market democracies.
The list of countries — South Africa, New Zealand, England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, France, Japan, Scotland, Argentina, Fiji, Italy, Samoa, Georgia, Uruguay, Tonga, Romania, Namibia, Chile and Portugal — can be verified as being among the more or less liberal states that, according to the Freedom House think-tank, account for only one-quarter of humanity.
It's true that some of these democracies, such as Georgia, have room for improvement, or haven't always been so democratic, as in the case of Argentina 40 years ago. And of course there's the unique case of South Africa, which lived under the racist system of apartheid until 1991, before the team's memorable post-apartheid victory in the 1995 World Cup — albeit controversial for other reasons, with suspicions of doping and poisoning of New Zealand's opponents before the final.
But none of the participants in this year's tournament are to be found among the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East, Africa, Asia or Latin America, where rugby is hardly ever played — the number of rugby players never exceeds 0.01% of the population.
Dictatorships stay in the checkroom
Only one dictatorship features among the 35 best teams in the world, according to World Rugby, the sport's international governing body: Russia, in 25th place.
This contrasts with football (soccer), which had 7 non-democratic regimes out of 32 participants in the last World Cup, or handball, 8 out of 32 in the World Championship last January, volleyball, 7 out of 24 in the last championship, or basketball, 7 out of 32.
Why is rugby, curiously enough, a marker of democracy, freedom and the rule of law?
Until recently, this could be explained by its history: it spread initially in Europe, southern Africa and the Pacific, in the colonies and political partners of the United Kingdom, which codified it in the 19th century, just as it had invented the rule of law and the parliamentary system in the 17th.
Nelson Mandela harnessed rugby as a vehicle for social change in 1995 to unite South Africa.
Game of barbarians
This is illustrated by its spread to France via its southwestern regions, with their long-standing trade links with the UK. Mysteriously and coincidentally, the climates of these countries are as temperate as their political systems, which in turn are conducive to the kind of turf that is essential for cushioning those infamous rugby falls.
But this historical explanation is less true today, as shown by the sport's popularity in countries not particularly linked to the Commonwealth, such as Japan, Portugal, Romania, Georgia, Uruguay, Spain (52,000 members, yes!) or the United States (who missed out on qualification by just one point to Chile).
It's a miraculous cocktail of individualism and collective spirit
It should also be noted that rugby, the "game of barbarians played by gentlemen'' — according to Oscar Wilde, can only flourish in countries with a high standard of living, as it requires a special infrastructure, turf and posts, unlike basketball, which only needs a basket and an acre of cement, or football, where all that's needed is to mark out two goals with four school bags. Not to mention an efficient healthcare system to treat injuries.
Master in every position
Above all, the sport's appeal to more or less liberal societies can be explained by the fact that it plays on values in line with their own.
A miraculous cocktail of individualism and collective spirit, rugby demands a great deal of initiative, because at any given moment, every player, whatever his position on the pitch or his place in the team, must be able to improvise and take over by himself — while taking into account his teammates and the game plan.
This is precisely what you find in liberal societies, contrary to popular belief, to ensure prosperity, defend rights and freedoms, to work, invest, rent or sell, you need numerous partners, contractors, shareholders, customers, suppliers, service providers, advisors, bankers, associates, auditors, judges and so on.
In a market economy, no entrepreneur can succeed alone.
Referee Ben O'Keefe talking to South Africa's captain Siya Kolisi during a game.
A final clue: because of the dizzying complexity of its rules, rugby is virtually impossible to play without a referee — a man who "knows the rules too well for players who don't know them well enough," as former French fly-half Pierre Albaladejo used to say — unlike other team sports, where self-refereeing is practiced outside of official competition.
A respected referee reflects a climate of trust towards institutions. The man in black would be comparable to the impartial state, ensuring compliance with the rules without taking on the role of the strategist.
The only downside to this metaphor is that, while you can challenge a state decision in court, you can't criticize the referee's decisions — even if he's a New Zealander — without incurring a penalty. Nobody's perfect.