Everyday lives and football identities 



Football as an object of anthropological studies

Although anthropology and related cultural sciences claim to deal with the study of everyday culture, football as a topic of research has enjoyed remarkably little attention. This is surprising, especially given that football deals with issues that lie at the core of the discipline, such as rituals, myths, social drama, issues of belonging, of staging the self, of symbolic communication and totemism, ‘deep play’, and quasi-religion.

There are, however, some notable exceptions to this habit of neglect: as early as 1981, Desmond Morris provided original insight into the behaviour patterns and rituals of what he called The Soccer Tribe. He was followed by Christian Bromberger, whose ethnography of the mediterranean passion for football based on extensive field work carried out in the late eighties in Marseilles, Naples and Torino was published in 1995 . One could also quote the contributions in a volume edited by Armstrong and Giulianotti, which attempt to present football in a both comparative and universal perspective, as well as some anthropologically informed journalistic writings by Kuper or Foer. In most publications the ‘field’, in a double sense, had either been the local club, inviting anthropologists to conceive of fans and fan clubs in terms of ‘tribes’, or the national arena as a locus where patriotic, national, and even nationalistic and racist attitudes could be more or less overtly displayed.

The football-related issue that has probably attracted most attention from social researchers is football hooliga­nism, i.e. football fandom in its most expressive and violent form. Often research on this topic has been coupled with an interest in the link bet­ween football and nationalism or excessive local/club patriotism. This is only logical, as research on hooliganism, especially in the UK following the disasters of the Heysel (1985) and Hillsborough (1989), was clearly on the research agenda, both in terms of relevance for policy-making and access to funding.

Hooliganism is not a core focus of the FREE project, whose socio-anthropological research strand has a more general outlook and aims at understanding the football phenomenon as being related to class relations and subculture, but at the same time as a symbolic domain that produces social identities at various levels.

Football identities as strategies of action

Like all collective identities, fan identities entail not only a significant and relevant Other, but also practices of distinction, ways of actively defining one’s in-group as different from the out-group in a variety of ways that strongly resemble subcultural practices. The Other, however, is not necessarily an invariable constant, but can shift according to the circumstances – and so can loyalties and identities. Here we are dealing with several levels of identification, which, however, are not clear-cut and can overlap. It is clear that in studying football we are confronted with highly complex but revealing mechanisms of identification and othering, which are two sides of the same coin.

A particulaly interesting phenomenon in the context of the FREE project is secondary fandom. This can be defined as support to a team other than one’s own. This happens particularly (but not only) when the own team is not in play (often in European competitions). Secondary fandom allows us to take a closer look at historical trajectories, cultural ties, practices and networks regarding football identities in Europe. We argue that that secondary fandom does not take place randomly, and that support for a distant football side other than one’s ‘own’ local or national team does neither change on a daily basis nor is an individual decision. The decision for secondary fandom follows certain trajectories that are historically and socio-culturally determined, and as such is not the object of an entirely individual choice. Furthermore, secondary fandom, like any identification, can be considered a strategy of action. Hence the project approaches the topic of football identities on a European scale from an actor-centered perspective. Football fans employ strategies of action which they construct according to their respective cultural tool-kit. Simultaneously, it is a practice of distinction and negotiation of identities in a specific social field.

Globalisation, Cosmopolitanism and the European Perspective

Globalisation accounts for increasing mobility, transnational communication, formal and informal networks, exchange of information. Football is certainly the most ‘global’ of all games. Yet, just as globalisation has not erased differences and antagonisms across the globe, football has not assumed a cosmopolitan meaning for all its followers. In the attempt to look beyond the rim of the local and national teacup and to describe football in terms of cosmopolitanism, one runs the risk of ignoring the fact that, for many ‘ordinary people’, cosmopolitanism is hardly a category they identify with in their everyday life. People are socialised into their respective football identities in a way that reflects and is determined by their social and cultural environment, which neatly fits the definition of culture as ‘a way of life’ according to Raymond Williams’ famous words.

While numerous authors detect indicators for an ongoing ‘glocalisation’ of football identities, we have come to the conclusion that it is tempting, but not sufficient to construct ideal types of a local and a global culture engaging in a constructive interplay, creating a ‘glocal’ hybrid football identity. Not only does such a perspective tend to idealise, essentialise, and simplify the highly complex processes and practices of constructing the self and the other, but it misses an important frame of reference for identity processes related not only, but also to football: Europe.

Adding a European perspective does not imply a clear-cut definition of what Europe is. Throughout history the very concept of ‘Europe’ has proved very resistant to concise definitions. The Europes of the European Union, the Eurovision Song Contest and the Champions League are not identical, but relate to differing spatial and geopolitical frameworks, each triggering respective emotions and imaginations. There are many ways to ‘think Europe’, but in one way or another Europe is a relevant category to order, categorise and ‘think’ the social world as well as to locate the self and other. Accordingly, the anthropological approach promoted by the FREE project does not aim at providing its own definition of what Europe is, should be or should not be; but looks at the practices, actions and ways of interpreting the social world of football fans in Europe.

The Relevant Other and the blind spot

It was Edward Said who instituted the notion of ‘Orientalism’ as a critical category. For him, orientalism is a set of discursive practices through which the West structured the imagined East. Discursive hardening permits politically stronger groups to define weaker groups. Said inspired a sequel of works on Eastern Europe as an imagined semi-Orient, internal European Other.

The image of the ‘East’ as untrustworthy, threatening and fundamentally different from an imagined ‘Western’ community is strongly rooted in Western collective memory and goes back much further than to the confrontation of the Cold War. The ‘East’ is a construction, and the juxtaposition of allegedly Eastern and Western virtues and values draws on well-established strategies of ascription. What nowadays is referred to as Eastern Europe, or Central Eastern Europe, is not and has never been a homogeneous entity. Instead, the name is a label affixed by Western Europeans, who have described 'the East’ as contrasting per se with civilisation, enlightenment and modernity, whereas the ‘West,’ in an idealising pattern of self-perception, is displayed as the yardstick for development and modernisation in the face of barbarism.

This dichotomous division of Europe into West and East can also be found in the power relations in European football. Not only are the most successful teams located in the Western part of the continent, but this reality, generated by economic factors, is also reinforced by a plethora of ‘orientalising’ images about Eastern countries in general, such as insufficient sport arena’s infrastructure, intrinsic corruption, hooliganism, etc.

The FREE project deals with the orientalisation of Eastern Europe from two innovative points of view: on the one hand it will scrutinise the West’s image of the East with regard to a European football space, since it is our hypothesis that Eastern Europe is a blind spot on the mental map of West-European football fans. On the other hand, the project puts a focus on the ‘Eastern’ strategies of coping with and negotiating their position and identity. Both elements will enable us to answer the overarching research question, to what extent the common European football space and accompanying context of communication, action and discourse actually contributes to overcome the still powerful European asymmetry of East and West.


In addition to the theoretical anthropological analysis and the quantitative research methods developed for the project, this research strand relies on qualitative empirical research, consisting of critical discourse analysis, qualitative semi-structured interviews with both fans and experts, the ‘Extended Case Method’ approach, as well as an extensive participant observation, including the writing of a field diary by the researcher and, for the specific case of the institutionalised minority of organised football supporters addressed by the governance research strand, methods of auto-diary field work.

Summary of research objectives

  • to investigate how a European football space is created in the everyday practices of football fans/supporters/followers in East and West;
  • to trace the trajectories and socio-historical sources of affection, loyalty and identification cross-cutting the European football space;
  • to scrutinise which rifts run through the European football space, and how they are reproduced;
  • to analyse the strategies of action and practices of distinction among European football fans, with particular reference to East-West asymmetry;
  • to explore the extent to which the common European football space and accompanying contexts of communication, action and discourse may actually contribute to overcome the still powerful European asymmetry of East and West;
  • to scrutinise to what extent a common European space is being created while inequalities at different levels persist.