For the first time in 28 years, the men’s England football team has made it to a World Cup semi-final. Social media has been awash with scenes of euphoria from across the country, from players and fans celebrating with friends and family, to the other extreme of invading an IKEA or jumping on an ambulance. Throughout the World Cup, there have been images of jubilation and sorrow, anger and relief. This emotional cauldron is what makes football such an important space for local and national identity.
Football fans in Bristol watch England take on Sweden in the World Cup Quarter Finals on 7th July. Image credit: Matt Cardy / Getty Images.
Unlike previous men’s World Cups, the dominant image has become the manager. Images of the dapper Gareth Southgate focussed on his sartorial elegance, his humility and grace in press conferences and his magnanimity in victory. After Southgate hugged Mateus Uribe in comfort, social media was ablaze with widespread praise as fan tributes led to #GarethSouthgateWould trending on Twitter. The Colombian had just missed a penalty that contributed to his team being eliminated from the competition, sending England through to the quarter-final. Predictably, the narrative focussed on the empathy that Southgate showed to Colombia’s final penalty taker. As a player, the England manager had also missed a penalty at Euro 1996, which sent England out at the tournament they were hosting. Football wasn’t coming home that year.
Sport stirs a wide range of emotions. Football in particular evokes powerful passions, from the joy of victory to the despair of defeat. The apparent simplicity of the game provides an easy identification for players and fans alike. Across the pitch there are conflicts and dramatic moments that heighten the emotional attachment to the event.
FIFA and politicians may talk of the ‘power of football’, but the sport has no intrinsic power of its own. It is the product of a wide range of social actors, relationships and interactions. The ubiquity of football permits it to be inscribed with a variety of meanings and identifications. From nationalism to a variety of moral codes, the image of football is used and abused. One person’s passion as a fan is another person’s vehicle for corruption. A multi-ethnic team can both symbolise the importance of diversity to team solidarity or the changing face of citizenship.
The emotional sense of belonging
Football provides the best way of understanding group formation – and this emotional sense of belonging is central. Groups are comprised of individuals who feel a connection as a member and they seek to differentiate themselves from others to accentuate themselves. Football provides this opportunity. The game provides a clear opportunity to pit oneself against another group, with the players engaging in a deep social ritual. Everywhere there are opportunities to clearly differentiate one group of fans from the other, from the type or quality of players, their style of play, or the organisational structures they’ve developed within. Even the colours of the shirts help provide a clear division between groups of fans.
Just as the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, argued with indigenous Australian religion, the rituals of participation provide a contrast between the mundanity of everyday life to the heightened emotional atmosphere of the ritual. Within the ritual, the group inscribe their sacred totems with meaning as they come to symbolise their group. Football is awash with this symbolism, from flags and shirts to songs and styles of celebration.
Emotion brings these differences between teams into stark contrast. When that goal is scored, that victory secured, there are two very different emotional collectives: the joyous victors and the devastated losers. That moment is the very essence of what it is to be human: shared collective emotions.
It is precisely because of the powerful emotional attachment football elicits that allows it be used as a moral and political tool. For those that want to demonise a section of society, they can be easily labelled as hooligans and drunken yobs. Yet the same politicians who decry the violent fans on the street are happy to extol the virtues of the sport when they wish to promote the economic benefits it brings to certain communities, or when they wish to use it as an educational tool for international development projects.
Presenting a positive image of football
It is here that we can return to the focus on Gareth Southgate’s empathetic response to the Colombian team and his graciousness in interviews. It was an opportunity to present a positive image of football, particularly when much of the media narrative before this World Cup was predicting impending violence and carnage as England fans came into conflict with those of Russia. It was also an opportunity to promote an image of Englishness as magnanimous in victory.
England’s coach, Gareth Southgate, shakes hands with Juan Cuadrado of the Colombian team at the end of the Colombia v England match. Image credit: Francisco Leong / AFP / Getty Images.
Football provides an opportunity to put these emotional collectives into opposition with other geographical areas. This results in a broader identification to a town, region or nation and with it, further differentiation from others.
And yet what should not be forgotten in all of these opportunities to differentiate ourselves is that we are all participating in the same ritual. To focus on the positive, we are all fans enjoying the sport. It is in these moments that we realise we are all human.
Dr Mark Doidge is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Brighton convenor of the Sport Studies Group for the British Sociological Association (BSA). He is also Director of the Anti-Discrimination Division of Football Supporters Europe (FSE). His research project, 'Refugees Welcome': Football fans and community in Europe, was funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award in 2016.