Sociology of football

By Artchil B. Fernandez

The “Beautiful Game” is back, and so is the biggest sport event in the world. To a Covid-19 weary world, the 22nd edition of FIFA World Cup in Qatar is a huge respite.

Football is the most popular sport on the planet and its sociological significance cannot be ignored. The fact speaks for itself, res ipsa loquitur.

Audit shows 3.572 billion people watched the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia while 3 billion people glued to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Football is also far, ahead with other sports in terms of global viewership – the Superbowl (NFL) – 112 million; the Masters (Golf) – 13.16 million; the NBA Finals (basketball) – 12.4 million; the World Series (MLB) – 11.75 million; and the Stanley Cup (NHL) – 4.59 million.

The data confirm football has a huge impact on societies and the global community. Football reveals a lot about societies and the global world order. The sociology of football therefore provides interesting insights on the nature and characteristics of societies as well as the attitude, practices and social behavior of people.

Configurational sociologist Norbert Elias considers football as a condensed expression of modernity. He argues that football more than any other sports permit sociologists “to observe modernity’s social issues as if through a magnifying glass.”

Social action is the heart of Weberian sociology and football is a vital arena to study this. Whether as an athlete or a fan, the behavior of people involved in football is instructive on how people give meaning to their action.

Any study of collective and crowd behavior overlooking football is a grave lapse. Football gives a rich insight on how people behave in a crowd. Inside a stadium with 100,000 people all acting in unison gives one a unique opportunity to observe closely collective behavior and action. People erupting in euphoria for a goal, the collective sigh for a missed opportunity or the deep silence as the teams try to overpower each other is a sight to behold and generates crucial sociological penetration of collective behavior.

There are many instances when crowd behavior turns violent with riots erupting between fans of rival teams or between fans and authorities in a football match. The recent football clash in Indonesia where 125 people died and 320 injured during a game between fierce rivals Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya is telling how contagious collective emotion is.

Football violence is not only limited among fans of rival teams and between fans and authorities but can happen even between countries. El Salvador and Honduras fought the “Soccer War” in 1969 in the aftermath of their crucial three qualifying matches for the 1970 FIFA World Cup preceded by riots of their supporters. No modern sport had generated such passion to induce an actual shooting war.

Conflict and collective violence can in investigated thru football. A football match after all is proxy for war and the pitch is a battlefield where armies of rival nations fight. Sociologists from the Marxist tradition can look at the pitch not only as a site where two teams battle for the ball but an arena where power, domination, subjugation, and control are played out.

Why teams from rich industrial regions of northern Italy monopolize football trophies over teams from southern rural and backward regions? Bourdieu used football to illustrate the interplay of different capitals in the field. The sport is a key spot where the state generates consent and gains hegemony in the Gramscian sense.

Symbols play important part in football. Colorful flags, fancy jerseys, bright scarfs, creative mascots, chants, songs, and yells are all constitute football culture. Football offers symbolic interactionists ample context on the meaning-making ability of people and how symbols influence and affect their social behavior. An examination of the outrageous costumes and attires of fans and the way they respond to images of their teams is useful in unraveling the power of symbols on people.

Collective effervescence is highly visible and strong in football by looking at the fans. Durkhemians find in football the strength of social solidarity and collective consciousness. Football arouses intense nationalism and sense of national pride. Saudi Arabia celebrated its team’s win over Argentina in Qatar by declaring a national holiday.

Issues of gender and race hound football. Women football players are paid way less than their men counterpart. US women’s team is world champion for four times, the most successful in history yet the US is not regarded as a football powerhouse since their men’s team has not won a world cup and poorly performs in the competition. The standard is still the men and gender equality remain a dream in football. Patriarchy will definitely make its last stand in football and the sport will be the final frontier to conquer.

Racism persists in the football world despite the effort of FIFA to eradicate it. When England lost to Italy in the 2022 EUFA championship, their young black players were subjected to outrageous racist abuse. Yet the same black players delivered 5 of England’s 6 goals in their opening game against Iran in Qatar.

FIFA, the richest and biggest sport organization in the world behaves as a multilateral institution like the IMF and the World Bank. It is mired in corruption controversy and its actions are reflective of the current neo-liberal world order.

From the micro to the meso and ultimately to the macro, football is a fertile ground to study society and people. The sociology of football gives us vivid insight on how people, societies and the world order behave and their practices.

As the global community once again come together to enjoy World Cup 2022 people must not forget much ignore its ugly and dark side. Only by addressing the social issues reflected in football can the sport be truly transformed into the “beautiful game.”