Politics in football is a topic that excites every football hipster around the globe. To a member of this particular subculture, just mentioning that you know that St. Pauli is a club supported by leftists, will sure raise an eyebrow. The football connoisseur can (and will!) explain to you the social composition of football stands from Italy to Argentina and the political ideologies of different ultras groups.
All joking aside, the sport is particularly useful for politicians and dictators alike. They use it to mobilise their people, strengthen their national identity and distract them from critical issues. Bread and circuses as the Romans used to say (whilst referring to less fun sports). Football stadiums have the capacity to be breeding grounds for many kinds of ideology, such as nationalism, anarchism, fascism, communism, etc.
Very often, sociologists (or disguised football hipsters?) try to analyse these phenomena. They argue that what makes the sport a fertile ground for the construction of political and social identities is its communitarian character. Antony Cohen, a famous British social anthropologist, stated that football clubs “‘consciously created identities and introduced colours, flags and other symbols so that they stood for something within their local community”. Through football clubs, people can strengthen their attachment with their community.
Almost all clubs are named emblematically after a particular place. This creates ties to specific territories and communities among fans. Examples include Glasgow Celtic in Scotland, which represents an Irish identity, or Athletic Bilbao in Spain which is connected with Basque national identity.
Club rivalries are the best means to understand the political aspect of the beautiful game. Many football rivalries are underpinned by deeper historical and cultural divisions. The most prominent sociologist researching football is Richard Giuliannoti, who is based in the University of Loughborough. He argued that the codification of ‘association football’ in 1863 provided a ready background for the expression of deeper social and cultural oppositions.
Giulianotti distinguishes six main ethnic factors that determine the essence of a football identity: nationality, ethnic identity, language, religion, territory and origin.
This type of rivalry is common in multinational states with societies which include people of different ethnic origins.
A good example is the Mostar derby in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where HSK Zrinjski competes with FK Velez Mostar. HSK (which stands for Croatian Sports Club) was founded in 1905 by local Croatians, whilst Velez was established in 1922 as a result of the rising national Bosnian sentiment.
HSK was successful in the first half of the 20th century. However, after WWII the communist authorities of Yugoslavia liquidated the club as a punishment for its participation in the Croatian league, organized by the fascist Ustashe regime.
On the other hand, Velez had its glory days under the rule of Tito. The re-establishment of Zrinjski coincided with the outburst of Civil War in Yugoslavia. Since 1995, Mostar has been a divided city, with Croatians living in its western part and Bosnian Muslims and Serbians in the eastern districts. In 1992 Velez was expelled from its traditional football ground, Bijeli Brijeg (currently used by HSK), which is in the Croatian part of the city and was forced to move to a much smaller stadium.
It is often claimed that the football rivalry surrounding the derby of Seville stems from the conflict of social classes, with poorer parts of the city supporting Real Betis and the middle-class cheering for the constant winners of the Europa League, FC Sevilla.
Whilst this is true, the Seville derby also has its ethnic dimension. Beticos come mainly from the poorer districts of Seville, such as Macarena and Triana, which are inhabited by a considerable Roma community. The Roma suffered persecutions under Franco’s regime, including their forced removal from Triana. Nevertheless, the majority of Seville’s population supported Franco.
Another aspect which contributed to this rivalry is also the complicated history of both clubs. Sevilla FC was founded in 1905 and four years later some of its players and activists left the club and formed Betis FC, only to merge in 1914 with another local team, Sevilla Balompie, originally established in 1907.
The Brugges Derby may not be the most prominent football rivalry in Belgium (as it is the fixtures between Anderlecht and Standard Liege that divide the Belgians) but it provides a good illustration of rivalry based on language. Club Brugge represents the Flemish-speaking part of the city where working class districts are located. Supporters of its rival, Cercle Brugge, typically belong to the French-speaking middle class, with the majority descending from Dutch and English immigrants.
The rivalry connected with the football derby of Skopje, the capital city of FYROM, is influenced by one main factor – religion.
Supporters of FK Vardar are mainly Christians of Macedonian descent, whilst the fan base of Sloga Jugomagnat is largely Muslim and Albanian. The social origin of Sloga’s supporters is clearly visible in the name of its firm. The blue and white fans are organised around a group called ‘Smugglers’ (Sverceri), which gives us an insight into how these members of the Macedonian society see and identify themselves.
The leading fan group of Vardar, the Komiti, start every match day with a traditional gathering at Soborna Church.
The most easily observable rivalry in British football is the one based on territory. Such animosities may occur between districts within a city (as in the case of London: Arsenal and Tottenham, Millwall and West Ham, Chelsea and Fulham and many others), between the city centre and the suburbs (HSV Hamburg and FC Saint Pauli), between the main city and the rest of the region (TSV 1860 Munich and FC Bayern), two neighbouring cities (Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04), two regions within a country (Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Marseille) or the capital city vs. the rest of the country (the case of Legia Warsaw in Poland).
This type of rivalry can be found in cities which witnessed a large inflow of migrants and economic development, at the end of the 19th century, the same time when modern football was born. Football identities in these cities were created simultaneously with social ones. This gave rise to antagonisms between indigenous citizens and migrants, arriving either from other parts of the country or from abroad.
This phenomenon can be observed in the history of Manchester (‘The Citizens’ against new inhabitants supporting Newton Heath – a football club for railroad workers, which later came to be known as Manchester United) or Turin (native inhabitants of the city supporting Torino against migrants working in the FIAT factory who cheered for Juventus).
Football rivalries are usually complicated. Ethnic identity, language and nationality are closely related and often connected with religion. Moreover, factors such as attachment to territory, migration and people’s origins are all interconnected.