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Imagined Communities on the Pitch:
Nationalism, Soccer, and the Question of Gender

Miriam Schacht, University of Texas at Austin

© Miriam Schacht. All rights reserved. Use without attribution prohibited.

MLA format citation:
Schacht, Miriam. "Imagined Communities on the Pitch: Nationalism, Soccer, and the Question of Gender." The Feuilleton. 20. December 2001. Date of access. <>

Mr. bin Laden excitedly recalls a dream someone told him: "I saw in a dream, we were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots! So I wondered if that was a soccer game or a pilot game? Our players were pilots."
(Sarah Boxer, New York Times)
  The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.
(Eric Hobsbawm)

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, played almost everywhere, albeit with varying degrees of skill. The enthusiasm the sport engenders, and the committed fan base, are mainstays of the sport; it is credited (though not quite correctly) with starting a war between Honduras and El Salvador, and the game and its supporters have caused a somewhat astonishing amount of death and destruction worldwide. It is often described in terms that might better suit a war, and many national governments put great store in the success of their teams on an international level. But why? Why does soccer receive this type of attention, why is it the storehouse of national identities and conflicts? Certainly, soccer fans like myself might begin by discussing the beauty of the game itself, its precision, the way it requires not only physical skills but substantial strategic thought; the exhilaration of a long pass and the agony of a post shot, the suspense and the sheer aesthetics of it - but, appealing though the game itself may be, the answers to these questions lie elsewhere.

One reason that soccer engenders such popular, national-identity-based fandom is precisely because it is played the world over, and has a well-organized international governing body. Another reason, however, is that the fan base is mostly male. Watching soccer games - especially in the stadium, as opposed to at home - is a predominantly male pursuit. Gary Armstrong, in his study of football hooliganism, found that only 10% of fans at FC United Sheffield games were female, and there is no reason to believe that this percentage would differ substantially elsewhere (certainly, the anecdotal, visual evidence of televised soccer matches indicates as much). In part, this imbalance is due to tradition, as well as the potential for violence ascribed to soccer arenas; moreover, the physicality of the stadiums - which usually require that fans be in close and sometimes uncomfortable physical proximity - also marks them as traditionally gender-inappropriate for women. Regardless of the origins of this disparity, however, it contributes to the overall nature of football fandom, and its nationalism in particular.

The homosocial nature of football fandom is intimately related to football fandom as a locale for nationalist expression. The nation, as Frantz Fanon demonstrates throughout his works, is at its core a fraternity of men ; while women have a role in the nation, it is - aside from exceptional circumstances like the Algerian revolution - generally conceived as an interior one, primarily confined to the home and family. As Partha Chatterjee explains, traditional gender concepts within the nation are linked to ideas of exteriority and interiority.

Applying the inner/outer distinction to the matter of concrete day-to-day living separates the social space into…the home and the world. The world is the external, the domain of the material; the home represents one's inner spiritual self, one's true identity. The world… is typically the domain of the male. The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world - and woman is its representation. (120)

Soccer is certainly one of these "profane activities," and while some fans might argue it is as much a spiritual experience as it is material, soccer fandom is at its core an outward-directed activity, and therefore an element of the outer, fraternal male world - where the most visible contests over the nation take place. This makes it particularly well-suited to expressions of nationalism.

Additionally, the rules of the international governing body, Fédération International de Football Association (FIFA), are a major contributing factor. The wording of FIFA's statute on membership (membership conveys the right to constitute a national team) is as follows:

3. Only one association shall be recognised in each country.
4. Each of the four British associations [England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales] shall be recognised as a member of FIFA.
5. A football association in a region which has not yet gained independence may, with the authorisation of the national association of the country on which it is dependent, also ask to become affiliated to FIFA. (Statutes Sec. I Art. 1)

The fact that national team status can be conveyed upon regions which have "not yet gained independence" nearly ensures that embattled national identities, in particular, will be transferred to the soccer pitch. Examples of this abound in FIFA's history: Palestine, though not an independent country, was granted FIFA membership (and thus national-team status) in 1998; a Palestinian team was created in 1934, and it was a Jewish national team long before the state of Israel gained nationhood. Puerto Rico, with its own long nationalist identity and opposition to U.S. colonization, fields its own national team, as do the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Faroe Islands (relatively autonomous but nonetheless under Danish sovereignty), Northern Ireland and the Netherlands Antilles, to name only a few ("FIFA's Member Associations"). The existence of national teams in these areas may serve either to divert energy from the struggle for independence - as in the Faroe Islands - or to serve as a focal lens for a national struggle, as in Northern Ireland.

It is not only the national team, however, that serves to engage nationalist sentiment. In the case of Northern Ireland, sectarian and nationalist struggles are often in evidence in more local sporting events. The fight against the planned relocation of the English Premier League Wimbledon club to Belfast, for example, struck many nationalist tones. The Northern Ireland Football Supporters Association - and it is important to note that it is not the soccer league itself but the association of supporters - "responded to [votes in favor of the move] with arguments against Wimbledon (or any other club) coming to 'our wee country'" ("Say No to Belfast United").

Another contested site of national identity occurs among immigrants, who often maintain some level of cultural ties to the country of origin while adopting the citizenship and to some degree the national identity of the host country. For many immigrants, soccer fandom is one locale where the country of origin matters more than the host country; perhaps because it is cultural rather than political nationalism, it can be maintained even when the immigrant has been politically assimilated through citizenship. In the United States, this type of fandom is perfectly acceptable, and is even considered quaint; reports during the 1994 World Cup on jubilation in Italian neighborhoods in New York and Boston after each Italian win, and the sorrow after their loss in the final (to Brazil, in an unprecedented penalty shoot-out), often adopted a bemused or even patronizing air (see for example Johnson, "World Cup Soccer Agony" and O'Brien, "Italian Fans Cheer"). However, such acceptance is an American quirk, largely determined by the fact that the United States is one of the few countries where soccer plays a negligible role on the national stage.

In countries where soccer has a more visible role, the maintenance of fandom for another nation's team can cause problems, and may even lead to violence. Tim Edensor and Frederic Augustin describe one such event, in Mauritius, on the occasion of a game between a Mauritian league team and an Egyptian team, Zamalek:

A full stadium of 20,000 fans included about 500 Zamalek supporters - apparently [Mauritian, primarily Muslim] Scouts [football team] fans - wearing their red shirts and scarves and carrying flags of Egypt and other Islamic nations. . . These fans, widely attacked in the media and physically assaulted at the game, were avowedly supporting their 'frères Musulmans' rather than joining in the patriotic support of the Mauritian team. (96)

In Germany, too, where a growing number of regional- and local-league teams are organized around identity, violence is often associated with these teams. There are several different nationality-based teams in Berlin, such as the SV Croatia; most prominent are the Turkish teams. The oldest, BFC Türkiyemspor, was founded in 1978 and several years ago almost managed the jump to the second league; the SV Yesilyurt, another team organized around Turkish identity, lost in the first round of this year's German Soccer Cup. A referee in the Berlin city league in 1998 complained that few referees were willing to officiate at matches involving Turkish teams because they were afraid of violence on the part of German supporters. The South African Dispatch Online reported on racist violence against BFC Türkiyemspor players in May of 1999:

Two players in a predominantly Turkish team were injured when 400 supporters of Dynamo Berlin assaulted them in a xenophobic attack on Tuesday night after a regional final won by Dynamo.
Although the game itself was played in a good spirit there were racial insults hurled by spectators at the players of fifth division Turkspor, founded by Berlin's large Turkish community.

Dynamo Berlin, the article goes on to note, was once prominent in the East German league, and has a reputation for right-wing fans; we will return to this team and its heritage later in the paper. Once again, however, it is important to note that while players were injured in the incident, the violence was enacted by the club's supporters.

Roy Hay, in his essay on Croatian soccer teams in Australia, cites an essay by P. Mosely indicating that Croatian immigrant soccer was the continuation of politics by other means.

More than any other group in Australia the Croats used soccer for political means… Convinced of perceived injustice, the Croats gave voice to their antagonism to Tito's Jugoslavia and backed it up with centuries old feuding, particularly with the Serbs and Orthodox Church. (79)

Here, "home country" rivalries were transplanted onto foreign soil, and soccer provided an excuse for carrying them out. Unlike the Mauritian and German examples, the perpetrators of the violence in these cases were the immigrants, and their targets were other minorities, primarily Serbs but also Jews (because of the fascist sympathies of Croatian team supporters). Here too, identity -national, ethnic and religious - plays a major role, and as is often the case, nationalism, ethnicity and religion are closely linked.

Teams organized around identity - whether national, ethnic, religious or a combination of the three - have a long history. In Scotland, the longstanding rivalry between the two major Glasgow teams - Celtic (Catholic) and Rangers (Protestant) - represents a religious conflict expressed on the sports field, but also has overtones of national and ethnic divisions, as many Celtic supporters are also Irish nationalists, whereas Rangers supporters are often Unionist. In Spain, the antagonism between Real Madrid (Spanish) and the FC Barcelona (Catalonian) is another such example; here, rival nationalisms are the root source of conflict. Particularly during the Franco era, when non-Spanish nationalisms were brutally suppressed, Real Madrid, situated in the Spanish capital, was considered the fascist "Franco's team," while FC Barcelona, located in the Catalonian capital, was the favorite of anti-federalist Catalonian nationalists as well as anti-fascist fans, neither of whom could openly express their political views in any other way. (As the name indicates, FC Barcelona's local rival, Español, was also a Spanish nationalist club.) Spanish author Manuel Vazquez Montalbán recently said of the FC Barcelona, affectionately known as Barça, "Barça is the vehicle for the identity of the Catalan people, and the antifederalism that is again growing strong all over Spain is looking for signs of identity, and it doesn't matter how or what kind" (quoted in "FC Barcelona").

Other examples of football's close linkage to identity politics abound, whether it be Basque teams in Spain (Walton) or the urban-rural rivalry in Norway that Hans Hognestad links to varied conceptions of the nation. As Edensor and Augustin show, Mauritian soccer has a long legacy of both ethnic and religious conflict, as its league was divided into Muslim, Hindu/Tamil, Hindu/Indian, Creole and "Coloured" teams. In an attempt to make soccer a less divisive factor in Mauritius's nation-building process, the government in 1999/2000 passed regulations re-ordering the teams, hoping to make them regional rather than ethnic/religious. Soccer fandom is thus a significant enough issue in the process of Mauritian nation-building that the government concerns itself with soccer league organization and financing (98). However, indications are that the proposed changes have not been particularly successful.

Another, even more systematic attempt to limit the divisiveness of soccer came about in the Eastern Bloc. The East German example may be the most instructive, both because it was among the most anti-national of nations in the Eastern Bloc and because of the changes that can be observed in the soccer scene since 1989.

In East Germany - a country anti-nationalist enough that there was some debate over whether to include the term "German" in the country's name (though it was included, the country was never officially referred to as "Germany") - soccer was treated as a means of creating international and internal friendships. It was also allowed as a way for people to engage in local patriotism without disrupting the unity of the socialist whole. In 1957, Wolfgang Polte wrote a book entitled Tooor! Spieler des SC Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt Erzählen (Goooal! Players of the SC Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt Tell Their Stories), a classic, regime-socialist celebration of East German soccer focusing on a Karl-Marx-Stadt team affiliated with the local mine workers. This book is an ideal place to begin an examination of East German soccer, as its representations accurately reflect the government's hopes for soccer in the new socialist republic.

These hopes begin with the introduction to Polte's book. Written by a player on a rival team, SC Dynamo Berlin, the second line reads, "We are rivals and friends at the same time" (v). The book goes on to explain local pride in the team, most of whom were employed in the SDAG Wismut mines. The linkage between work and sport was part of what Vic Duke identifies as a "total reorganization" of sports in Eastern Europe.

[T]otal reorganization of sport along socialist lines was to provide a common pattern for all those [Eastern Bloc] countries. . . The new sports structure emphasized the historical role of the working class and was based on multi-sport clubs for worker organizations. Sport was seen as part of the cultural emancipation of the working class. (92)

Whether this reorganization - alongside East Germany's much vaunted emancipation of women - also resulted in increased female attendance at games and participation by women in soccer fandom is a question not even asked in Duke's essay; it is, however, an important question for the discussion of soccer and nationalism, and it will require further research.

The first chapter of Polte's book begins at the end of a shift in the mines, and follows two "Kumpel" - mineworkers - as they walk out of the mines. These two workers, we learn, are not only mineworkers, but players for the team.

Siegfried Wolf and Willi Tröger are two Kumpel who aren't any different from the others on the outside, who speak the same language and fight alongside many others for the fulfillment of the plans; they are at the same time two excellent football players who, on Sundays, represent the Wismut-colors on the field. (1)

They represent their work and the fight to fulfill the plan - acceptable locations of identity in socialist East Germany. Soccer teams were to be organized around work, not ethnic identity (though there were ethnic minority groups in East Germany, notably the Sorbs) or political affiliation (particularly since, in a one-party state, there is officially only one political affiliation). The conflicts with the socialist identity came on the international stage. Duke points out how nationalism was promoted in Eastern Bloc soccer.

From the very beginning of football in the region, the national team has played an important role in national consciousness… [M]any of the early international matches in the region tended to be against near neighbors, thereby stoking the fires of popular nationalism.
In the communist years, the national football teams retained a prominent position in the hearts and minds of the nation. Support for the national team could be construed as support for the regime. Moreover international sport was a key arena in which to demonstrate the strength and superiority of socialism. (97)

This is certainly true as far as it goes. When playing against teams who were not the "befreundete sozialistische Ausland," "friendly socialist foreign countries," the former GDR used soccer to stand in for its system of government, its ideals, and its supposedly non-national nation. One of the most significant international events for the East German soccer team came during the 1974 World Cup, when East Germany beat West Germany 1:0. Jürgen Sparwasser scored the winning goal, sealing the victory for East Germany in the 76th minute. As Sparwasser explained after the fall of the Wall, "My goal was butchered for politics; every Saturday for a year it was shown in the opening credits of the GDR Sportschau [the state television sports program]." Even after the collapse of the East German state, the significance of the event - while perhaps not quite on par with President Kennedy's assassination in the U.S. - sparked a series of interviews and guest essays in the Jungle World (a 1996 offshoot of the former socialist youth paper Junge Welt). entitled "Wo waren sie als das Sparwasser-Tor fiel," that is, "Where were you when Sparwasser shot the goal?"

However, what Duke fails to consider in his analysis is how intra-socialist competition was handled. Certainly, pride in the national team and patriotism was heavily promoted during Olympics or World Cups, where the majority of a team's opponents were from capitalist countries. But what happened when teams within the Bloc played against each other? Allegiance to the other socialist countries was an important political goal for most of the regimes, and certainly the type of nationalist pride seen at matches against capitalist countries was considered inappropriate when facing other socialist countries.

Here, Polte's book offers insight, for it describes a number of international matches. Each such description attempts to balance mentions of sporting rivalry with pointed references to the camaraderie between the different fans and (pre- and post-game) the team members. A description of a game between SC Wismut and Dynamo Kiev is entitled (quoting from Goethe's Faust) "Two souls, alas, live within my heart," and focuses not on the end result of the game (Kiev's victory), but on the friendship between German and Soviet workers and soldiers.

It was the 20th of August, 1950. The bleachers of the new stadium were filled to bursting… German and Soviet humans sat on the bleachers. They had built this beautiful sporting arena together. Hundreds of Soviet soldiers, together with Wismut Kumpels, worked thousands of volunteer hours to complete the stadium on time…

German and Soviet fans are friendly and in solidarity with each other. Fan behavior like that at contemporary English football matches is not only never mentioned but would not have been tolerated.

However, this official policy of friendliness and solidarity was in constant conflict with the fact that, in other contests, nationalist sentiment and a sense of superiority abounded. Given the example of the SC Dynamo Berlin, it appears that the idea of solidarity with teams from other countries was short-lived, expiring with the GDR itself.

In the GDR, SC Dynamo Berlin was in the first league and was considered East Germany's prime soccer team. After 1989, the team had considerable financial troubles, for which it was demoted from the top league and eventually ended up reorganized and in a local Berlin league. Its fan base now consists largely of two groups of people: those nostalgic for the former GDR, and - as mentioned above - right-wing xenophobes. There is quite a bit of overlap between these two groups, and this contemporary example seems to indicate that nationalism is deeply enough engrained in soccer that five decades of occasional challenge to this nationalism are not enough to make a difference.

So how deeply is nationalism embedded in soccer fandom? Why is it that soccer, apparently more than any other sport, engenders such identity-based and, ultimately, potentially violent fandom (one certainly would not expect riots as a result of tennis or handball matches, or track and field competitions)? It certainly seems unlikely that soccer is merely the excuse for such behavior; but what is it about soccer, about the composition of the sport, the spectators, the society that calls this forth? To truly answer this question, it is imperative to recognize the gendered aspects of soccer fandom - that it is almost exclusively male soccer fandom under discussion, and that this homosocial environment contributes to particular forms of identity formation and expression.

In his article "From Rough Lads to Hooligans: Boy Life, National Culture and Social Reform," Seth Koven describes men who crossed class lines in "a self-conscious attempt to create nation and community through vertical bonds of comradeship across class lines" (365). Football fandom, too, can be seen in these terms, especially as a number of studies indicate that football fans - and even, contrary to popular belief, football hooligans - come from a wide spectrum of class backgrounds (Armstrong, Edensor and Augustin, Giulianotti and Armstrong). Watching a soccer match brings people from a wide range of backgrounds together around one singular identity: that of team supporter. While this type of togetherness does occur at a variety of sporting events, soccer's worldwide scope, FIFA's flexible rules for national membership, and a long history of identity-based teams ties soccer spectators particularly closely to nationalism.

The role of gender, however, remains a key. While there have been extensive studies about male soccer, the relatively new phenomenon of women's soccer teams has received little scholarly attention. In terms of spectators, women's soccer appears to be a very different creature than men's soccer, and we must ask ourselves why. Certainly, its relative newness contributes, as do societal biases against women in this traditionally male arena. However, we might also ask whether the different composition of women's game spectators might disrupt traditional narratives of nationalism and community composition. Women's soccer fans are women as well as men, and the players are, of course, female - facts which do not lend themselves to an easy analogy with the type of patriarchal structure on which the nation is modeled. Michael Black, in one of the few examinations of women's teams, documents the creation of the Poseurs women's soccer team in California:

[T]he Poseurs grew directly out of the Sands [men's Gaelic football team]. The ethos of the Poseurs developed largely in direct opposition to the hyper-masculine, hyper-competitive and staunchly Irish republican ethos of the "brother" club to which it was at first affiliated. (np)

If his example is representative - and more work needs to be done to establish whether this is the case - then women's soccer may in fact be a counterweight to nationalist and masculinist sports ideologies.

The impact of women spectators at men's games also needs to be studied in greater detail, for the presence of women disrupts the homosocial nature of the fan community, undoubtedly changing behaviors and again, possibly challenging fraternal nationalism. Communist Eastern Europe, which encouraged (and enforced) some degree of gender parity in a number of arenas, might be a useful location for beginning such an investigation. The United States, where men's soccer is marketed as a family sport, is another possible location for such a study, though that country's anomalous cultural relationship to soccer may render broader conclusions difficult if not impossible. One other possible site of study might be the German first-league team FC St. Pauli, which has an openly progressive political orientation and which, in my experience, also boasts somewhat more female fans.

In truth, the questions posed throughout this paper - why the association between soccer and nationalism? why are identity and soccer so closely linked in so many parts of the world? - cannot be fully answered until the question of gender and its impact on soccer is given further consideration. However, given the fraternal, homosocial nature of soccer fandom, it is clear that the type of community most often expressed through the identity politics of soccer supporters is very traditional in its nationalism and its conceptions of gender. Progressive ideals are sometimes espoused by fans and teams - as in the case of FC Barcelona or FC St. Pauli - but given the traditional structures of the fan community, we must ask to what degree these progressive ideals are followed or lived out. In most of its incarnations, soccer fandom is a traditionalist, non-progressive fraternal society, where dreams of national liberation and superiority are played out and where women are invisible. Those incarnations that do not follow this pattern may provide more insight into these structures, as well as how they might be challenged or - perhaps - dismantled.

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© 2001 Miriam Schacht. All rights reserved.