Over at his blog, Ludovic Lestrelin (a football / sport sociologist specialized in fans and supporters, well worth following) has an interesting post (and a version published by Le Nouvel Observateur) on the convergence of the World Cup, globalization and support for national teams. I’ll highlight the main points since the post is in French, obviously, with my comments in there as well.
As we are getting close to the end of the group phase of the World Cup, a few teams will be going home. What of their supporters? Do they still to go, or watch, the games once “their” teams are done?
For Lestrelin, the system of sport-as-spectacle has two pillars:
Uncertainty tied to the confrontation at every game; after all, the current World Cup has already produced a few surprises with “big” teams not making it through the group stage (so long, Spain and England). At the same time, the whole system of qualification rounds pretty much guarantee a certain equalization between the different teams as no team would have made it past the qualification stages if it weren’t of good caliber.
Identification: this is the sociologically well-known in-group / out-group dynamic, the team becomes “we” and everyone else is “them”. In his most recent book, David Goldblatt emphasizes the importance of football in solidifying nationalism in Brazil. Also insert appropriate reference to Benedict Anderson’s imagined community. There is no question that, whatever the motivation (be it political or crassly commercial), these kinds of global competitions are major vehicles for the production of nationalism (also see Durkheim on the importance of such rituals).
But wouldn’t the last point mean that once one’s team is disqualified, the experience is over for the fans and supporters? Well, one possible reaction is resentment. One certainly the highly negative reactions triggered by the incidents with the French team at the last World Cup in 2010 where the players were accused to be traitors to their countries, happy to play well for the individual teams that pay them handsomely, but reluctant to break a sweat for “their” national team.
For Lestrelin, there is more though, as football does not necessarily lead to ultra-nationalism (pun intented). Indeed, Lestrelin argues, that one gets a stronger and more emotionally involved sport experience once one has chosen a side and so, the supporter of a losing team finds a substitute allegiance, having to do with their individual history and experience.
This is not new but increased migration and geographical mobility in the context of globalization has made finding such replacement allegiance easier to find. But the main point is that these replacement allegiances have their roots in individual history and experience: you root against the team that beat “your” team, you root for the team of the country where you studied for a term, the country of your best friend, or whatever, etc. Of course, one can also root for individual super-players. Lestrelin notes that in 2002, quite a few French supporters from the Lens and Sedan clubs supported Senegal as many Senegalese players played in these two clubs.
Increased migration and presence of diasporic communities also provide easy multiple allegiances as societies become more diverse and cosmopolitan. Indeed, as Lestrelin notes, supporters of Algeria or Turkey or Morocco are not hard to find in France or Belgium. Immigrant communities do not cut emotional ties with their countries of origin and these get reactivated at times such as the World Cup. National identity as floating signifier in a multi-layered experience, not necessarily primarily tied to national citizenship.
Actually, for Lestrelin, supporters’ experience is less and less national. Allegiance is not a given. One gets to pick sides in the context of weakening boundaries where individualistic choice is the default posture (see, Bauman, individualization). And so, supporting as individualized identity becomes easily a multiple identity and switching from one allegiance to another becomes an available strategy (much to the chagrin of nationalist and anti-immigrant political groups) for whom anything less than total devotion is akin to treason (except if the team itself is made of x-generation immigrants, in which case, any defeat – or lack of anthem-singing – will be interpreted as lack of loyalty to the nation).