There is perhaps no greater metaphor for the cultural successes and failures of globalization than international soccer (also called, football, futbol, fußball, and many other lingual variations that unite the foot and the ball). It is a social outlet that somehow houses fanatical attitudes that reinforce both tribalism and international camaraderie in the hearts and minds of billions.
The only institutions that even come close to harboring as many followers and fanatics as soccer would be famous musical acts and major world religions. It’s a simple, and arguably overused comparison, but a useful one nonetheless. Pundits and academics alike have made the case that as modern life becomes increasingly more secular, soccer has become something of a 21st century church, where followers meet inside of great structures to unite in song, chants, and emotional release. Many journalists reporting on the Brazil-hosted 2014 World Cup would argue that also like a church, the tournament’s organizer FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is allowed far too much secrecy, tax evasion and social influence than it deserves.
But no church is complete without its divisions, and soccer has many. In certain regions of the world, soccer players for different teams serve as the modern embodiment of ancient cultural feuds dating back centuries. It’s not uncommon for WWII rhetoric to skyrocket when England or France play an international match against the likes of Germany. Wins and losses in major tournaments, regardless of nationality, can lead to riots and fights where many people get injured, and even die. The most violent and outspoken soccer fans, known as “hooligans” in many countries, often lead to canceled matches, police surveillance of stadiums and disqualification of major clubs from tournaments.
This also exists beyond the likes of the World Cup, and is actually even more of a problem on a regional level. In Scotland, for example, they have the famous Glasgow Derby, home to one of soccer’s oldest rivalries. Two teams, Celtic and Rangers, have come to embody a social division in Scotland that goes back to the birth of Protestantism. Ranger supporters across Scotland are typically Protestant where Celtic supporters in Scotland are typically Catholic. Celtic also has a fan base in Catholic Northern Ireland, so the team inevitably takes on some of the image of the IRA, and other Irish Catholic terrorist groups. Needless to say, this leads to fans of both clubs committing acts of violence both inside and outside the stadium. A few violence-related deaths after the match are not uncommon.
Rangers (left) and Celtic (right) divided by Scottish police
Beyond religious division, hardcore soccer hooliganism can also come to show the ugly side of ethnic divisions too. To the south of Scotland, England has had serious issues with hooliganism for decades. Although still a social problem, English hooliganism had its heyday in the late 70’s and early 80’s, during one of the largest influxes of immigrants in UK history. Many right wing groups in England found soccer stadiums to be effective recruitment centers, due to their huge numbers of working class sports spectators shouting unspeakable rants of violence, rage, and hate. Today, many right wing organizations in England have hijacked the St. George’s Cross (England’s flag) and somewhat rebranded it as a neo-fascist symbol. And both in England and abroad, it’s sadly a common sight to see players of color being pelted by bananas as fans in the stadiums shout horrific racial slurs.
Beyond the UK, other extreme right-wing groups use soccer stadiums as recruitment centers as well. Soccer fans known as ‘Ultras’ in Italy are as famous for their fights and fireworks displays as they are for holding up images of Mussolini and Swastikas in the stands during soccer matches. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbian nationalists even recruited soldiers by establishing relationships with the most extremist of fan clubs for local soccer teams. In 2014, Greece’s outspokenly racist political party ‘Golden Dawn’ takes advantage of soccer clubs to gain support for its attempts within the Greek Parliament to expel all immigrants from the country.
Members of the Greek ‘Golden Dawn’ party at a rally
In South America, less money and less social control means that many soccer clubs are not only tolerant of, but even run by, the most violent fans. Additionally, different local soccer teams from Brazil to Argentina are subject to control by everyone from drug-dealers to angry lower class citizens. Outbreaks of violence are as likely to be soccer related as social class related. And private soccer clubs do little to tone down these rivalries. In many cases, club owners benefit greatly from the merchandise and ticket sales from the tribal micro markets that local clubs create.
It’s also part of what makes Brazil a tough place to hold a World Cup. Despite paying for the construction of all of the World Cup stadiums, the Brazilian government makes no money off of ticket sales for the World Cup. FIFA actually is the one that makes a profit, because it is the one that sells the tickets. This has led to both peaceful protests and some contained riots that have nothing to do with soccer allegiance, but instead are outspoken objections to spending billions of dollars on sporting events in a country where many millions still live in poverty stricken slums with little to no social services or rule of law. For this reason, most of Brazil’s worst violence during this most recent World Cup occurred in fringe areas far from tourists, and has gone largely unreported by international news. Salvador, for example, one of Brazil’s host cities for the tournament, saw a police strike two months before the cup began, killing several people. There are also few reliable statistics on murder rates in the poorest areas of many host cites like Rio, where military police have cleared out entire slums to make room for tourists.
Brazilian protesters hold signs for international news cameras in front of riot police
It’s not to say that all fanatical attitudes come from soccer. There is also no proof that any of the violence that happens around soccer matches wouldn’t be occurring someplace else were the sport not to exist. It is only to say that, be it by chance or deliberate design, the game of soccer has come to serve as something of an embodiment of racial, regional, and class related conflicts across the globe. What some see as an outlet for human feelings is also perceived by many as an environment that perpetuates, and to some degree even condones, acts of hate, violence, and the tribalizing of our global society.