ECMI Minorities Blog. National and Linguistic Minorities in the Context of Professional Football across Europe: Five Examples from Kin-State Situations
*** The blog posts are prepared by the authors in their personal capacity. The views expressed in the blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues. ***
Following on from the previous post, highlighting five football clubs with a distinct linguistic and cultural identity to the majority of clubs in their domestic league, this analysis is extended with a further five clubs – this time centring on examples with a kin-state. Whilst many of the aspects previously highlighted are also true of kin-state situations, there is a significant difference in that the binary logic of minority-majority situations is further complicated by the existence of an external actor and thus resulting in a triadic nexus (which some authors expand further towards “quadratic” constellations – including also international actors). Zsuzsa Csergő defines this category of actors as “states that pursue policies aimed at members of co-ethnic groups living abroad”, whilst pointing to the existence of highly contextual conditions influencing the importance, content and intensity of such actions. Consequently, concrete kin-states’ actions can be considered as located somewhere between the fulfilling of “the requirements of cosmopolitan justice” or as stoking “chauvinism, aggression, intolerance, and irredentism”. This variety is reflected in the following selection of cases, which includes countries such as Hungary (highly active as a kin-state of Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries, and frequently critically assessed in that regard), Croatia (particularly active in the field of dual citizenship for kin-communities, especially in Herzegovina), Austria and Ireland (two cases of “moderating” kin-states in relation to the developments in, respectively, South Tyrol and Northern Ireland), and Sweden (somewhat reluctantly involved as a kin-state in the disputes concerning the status of the Åland Islands in the early 20th century; currently the mutual links are primarily defined in terms of linguistic and cultural proximity). This post aims to consider this aspect, alongside the same parameters of distinct linguistic and cultural identity, and as a result focuses on how / whether this is evident in fan behaviour as well as official club communication. What follows, therefore, is an overview of five football clubs which can be linked to a linguistic or cultural kin-state, followed by a comprehensive conclusion which discusses the 10 clubs across both posts.
1) Derry City FC
Located under the legal jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, Derry City are the only club from the six counties in the north to play in the Republic of Ireland’s football league system. For the purposes of the kin / non-kin-state dichotomy, the case of Derry City is particularly interesting. First, the fanbase is (nowadays) predominately Irish identifying or part of the so-called Irish nationalist community. Second, the club is located within a region which only recently passed legislation to promote the Irish language. In that sense, the fact that its website is available only in English can be considered a reflection of the language-related long-term political developments. Third, the effects of the Troubles, the Good Friday Agreement etc. point to a troublesome backdrop to the history of the club which continues to reverberate within the Irish nationalist community in the six counties. From the broader comparative perspective these dynamics are not unlike in other cases involving “the external national homelands”. Nevertheless, they resulted in the already signalled unique case of a football club joining the league system of its kin-state.
It was the aforementioned historical and socio-political context which pushed the club towards the kin-state. Founded in 1928, the beginnings of Derry City saw an attempt to act as a cross-community club consisting of both Catholic and Protestant players, fans and board members. Following the Troubles, intercommunal relations in Derry and beyond deteriorated. This consolidated the external image of the club as a bastion of Catholicism and Irish nationalism, whilst clashes with visiting teams’ fans resulted in the ban on playing games at home due to potential security risks. Ultimately, the club withdrew from the Irish League and did not take part in senior football competitions for over 10 years.
Following the joining of the Ireland’s league system in 1985, Derry City fans have consolidated their opposition to football in Northern Ireland and solidified their identity as a southern Irish club – aided also by the team’s first FAI Cup final appearance in 1989 and subsequent six wins in this competition; most recently in November 2022, with a victory in Dublin, taking over 20,000 fans along for the occasion – an incredible number considering the average league attendance for the club is around 2,500. This was possible despite recent and hitherto unfulfilled concerns that a hard Brexit, advocated by some in Northern Ireland, could significantly complicate the Derry City’s involvement in the kin-state’s league system, as well as frictionless movement of fans across the border.
2) FC DAC 1904 Dunajská Streda
Located in Slovakia, close to its southern border with Hungary, FC DAC 1904 were founded when the town of Dunajská Streda / Dunaszerdahely was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the municipality continues to have a large ethnically Hungarian population (almost 72% in 2021) which forms the majority of the club’s support base. The Hungarian identity of the club is very well-known across Slovakia and has led to clashes with ultra groups from prominent ‘Slovak’ clubs such as Slovan Bratislava – most notably in 2008 where the fixture was disrupted by riot police, resulting in the increase of diplomatic tensions between host- (Slovakia) and kin-state (Hungary). Indeed, the FC DAC 1904 ultra group YBS do not allow Slovak members and the crowd sing the Hungarian national anthem before games. As it is forbidden to bring the flag of another nation into a sports stadium in Slovakia, fans have developed creative solutions to expressing their Hungarian identity at games, like a ‘flag’ composed of Hungarian words red, white and green.
Financially, the club benefit from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s keen interest in football to receive infrastructural funding from the Hungarian state (a practice common amongst Hungarian minority football clubs in countries like Romania, Serbia or Ukraine), whilst Hungarian large multinational company MOL is one of the club’s strategic partners. Orbán himself is said to be a close friend of DAC owner Oszkár Világi – a local businessman who has intended to grow the club beyond its existing fanbase since taking over. This is reflected in the club’s trilingual website (with Hungarian and Slovak versions largely equivalent, accompanied by a less comprehensive English one) and quite international roster of players. Whilst Hungarian citizens and members of Slovakia’s Hungarian minority are visible among both playing and technical staff, the broader picture reflects sporting success as a priority rather than purely ethnicity-oriented goals, however, implemented in the context of pragmatic approach to financial opportunities created by links to the kin-state. Indeed, on the pitch, the club has been progressing closer to lifting the Slovak top-flight title for the first time, frequently entering the Europa League and Europa Conference League qualifying rounds in recent years.
3) IFK Mariehamn
In the academic literature, the Åland Islands’ institutional arrangements are relatively renowned, yet the linguistic identity expressed through sporting terms is much less discussed. Located in this autonomous area of Finland, IFK Mariehamn were formed in 1919 with a constant presence in the Finnish top division since the early-2000s. Although Swedish holds the status of an official state language of Finland, it is minoritized in numerical terms across the country. The Åland Islands and its main town of Mariehamn is one of the geographical areas with a dense population of Swedish speakers – maintaining also strong elements of Swedish culture. This is immediately obvious from the club’s prefix; Idrottsföreningen Kamraterna (IFK) – in the Swedish language and commonly used by sports or football clubs in Sweden – for example, IFK Göteborg.
As such, IFK Mariehamn operate almost entirely in Swedish or even English, rather than Finnish. As Håkan Ringbom showed, on field communication in the club has been taking place in Swedish or English due to the recruitment of international players, with Finnish being an exception rather than a norm. Furthermore, the club's website is run in Swedish only, whilst it showcases its firm regional roots through the slogan "All Åland’s football team" and highlights its connections to the local population, business community and political elites. Similarly, the club’s Twitter account is operated mostly in Swedish, only occasionally interspersed with retweets in Finnish or English. Therefore, both linguistic and localist / regional identity are very much visible in the day-to-day functioning of the club, however, any visible links to an active triadic nexus involving Sweden are rather absent (e.g., there are no players from Sweden in the current squad). It can be argued that this is the reflection of Swedish being a pluricentric language, rather than Sweden being a typical kin-state. Nevertheless, this definitely ensures an obvious visual and linguistic differentiation of IFK Mariehamn from other clubs in Finland’s Veikkausliiga, which they have been ever-present in since 2005 – lifting a first league title in 2016, a year after winning the Finnish Cup for the first time.
4) HŠK Zrinjski Mostar
Located in the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which saw some of the most intense frontline combat during the Balkan conflict during the early 1990s, HŠK Zrinjski Mostar is located on the west side of the river Neretva. As Gary Armstrong and Emily Vest outline, the fanbase of the club has carried a Croat identity. It is symbolised by its full name ‘Hrvatski Športski Klub [Croat Sports Club], the fact that the club is named after the Croatian noble family Zrinjski, that they sport the Croatian national colours of red and white chequered squares on the club crest (informally knows as šahovnica), and run a Croatian-language website (notwithstanding the proximity between different varieties of the Serbo-Croatian language). The club was originally founded in 1905 but was later banned during the post-WWII years under the communist administration for such reasons as historical ties to the Croatian nationalism or participation in the football league of the Independent State of Croatia. 1992 saw the club’s reestablishment which took place not in Mostar but in the Catholic pilgrimage site of Međugorje. Alexander Mennicke interprets this as an intentional case of a symbolic unification of such aspects as ethnicity, religion and sport.
With the onset of the ethnic conflict, FK Velež Mostar, until 1992 the only successful club in the city supported across all communities, were evicted from their Bijeli Brijeg stadium and replaced by the freshly reformed HŠK Zrinjski. This was the reflection of Mostar becoming largely an ethnically divided city as a result of the war, with the stadium for a short time functioning as a detention centre for Bosniaks expelled from the western part of the city. Consequently, the rivalry between the two clubs runs largely along ethnic lines. FK Velež is supported predominately by the Bosniak Muslim community and plays on the east side of the river, whereas on the western bank of Neretva it has become “not a matter of choice but rather a social obligation” to side with HŠK Zrinjski. Frequent clashes between the two sets of fans have led to the footballing authorities often forcing games to be played without fans in the stadium.
On the field, the Croatian identity of HŠK Zrinjski has allowed them to take advantage of links to clubs in Croatia and bring in promising young players on loan from the kin-state, the most famous of which was the Croatia and Real Madrid star, Luka Modric who spent a season in Mostar in his early twenties. Furthermore, the club’s affinity to actors in its kin-state can be seen through official club communication congratulating Dinamo Zagreb on their 2022-23 Croatian title win. On top of this, much of the squad has Croatian nationality, frequently in combination with that of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These links have helped make HŠK Zrinjski the most successful club in the Bosnian league, lifting the national title for a record eight time in the 2022-23 season.
5) FC Südtirol
Located in the autonomous province of Bolzano/Bozen, FC Südtirol have recently been promoted to the second division of Italian football for the first time in their history. The club’s name is visibly German, differentiating it from the rest of the clubs in the league table, and the club’s management, alongside regional authorities, hope that playing now in Serie B will further increase the visibility of the region and awareness of its unique socio-linguistic profile across Italy and beyond. Formed in 1995, the club grew out of a previous local team anchored within the German-speaking community. Nevertheless, the intention was to bridge the linguistic communities and act as one club for the region – the club’s website claims that one can meet fans of the German, Italian and Ladin language groups in the stadium. Despite that, the German identity of the club is an aspect which is evolving; the club started with a bilingual name but the Italian ‘Alto Adige’ was dropped, causing a backlash amongst certain local fans despite the badge changing to display the bilingual town name ‘Bolzano/Bozen’. The management of the club also has strong links to the German-speaking community, with one of the most prominent examples being Walter Baumgartner, who for a certain time combined the role of the club’s president with important positions within the South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP). Moreover, the ties with the regional politics are further evidenced by considerable financial support of the club by the province. In terms of the business model, FC Südtirol follows more of a German style of a public company owned by members and supporters, an aspect said to be unique in Italy.
Somewhat similarly to the case of IFK Mariehamn, FC Südtirol’s links to the kin-state are largely overshadowed by aspects concerning the regional context. German language is an obvious connection; however, the club’s bilingual website (German and Italian; Ladin is notably absent) relativizes this. In terms of squad-related aspects, the current team does not include a single player from Austria and majority of them have Italian surnames, with many born outside of South Tyrol. The same applies to the current coach Pierpaolo Bisoli, a native of Porretta Terme in Emilia-Romagna. Perhaps the most substantial link to Austria could be found in the club’s self-perception concerning its geographical location, with its website stating that it is the only professional football club to be found “between Innsbruck (Austria) and Trento (Italy)”.
The five cases in this blog post offer an insight into the identity of football clubs where a kin-state dynamic is involved. It is clear that all have a significant differentiation to the domestic league they are based in: be it linguistic (like IFK Mariehamn), in terms of the self-identification of a significant sector of the fanbase (FC DAC 1904) or socio-political anchoring (FC Südtirol and HSK Zrinjski Mostar). The extent to which the third actor in the triadic nexus is present in the activity of the club, varies significantly across the five cases. Kin-state ties in terms of organisational activity, sponsorship opportunities or personnel-related aspects, can all be seen to varying degrees – often correlated with the broader implications discussed in the introductory paragraph above. The more prominent the aspect of kin-state activism, the more substantial links of a club / its fans to an ‘external homeland’ – such is the case of FC DAC 1904 in relation to financial opportunities or HSK Zrinjski Mostar in the context of cooperation with kin-state-based clubs, such as Dinamo Zagreb, resulting in loan deals of players. Conversely, the less prominent the kin-state’s role, the less pronounced the links with the club. For instance, linguistic linkages are present in the case of both IFK Mariehamn and FC Südtirol, however, the cultural reference points seem to be more of a regional than kin-state-oriented nature. Derry City can be considered a case apart, with the club choosing a path of “reunification” (in footballing terms) with the kin-state at some point in its history.
Across the two blogposts, the ten clubs offer an insightful glimpse into the ethnic and linguistic diversity among the collective identities of football clubs across Europe. All of the analysed cases do demonstrate how strong of a differentiation there can be between a minority club and the other clubs they compete with ‘domestically’. What is clear, is that the identity of the club appears quite often to be more important than any other aspect for the fans in question – of course, football is a tribal affair in general, but the perceived linguistic and ethnic difference adds another dimension, even in relation to cases where political antagonism is less pronounced, such as SC Heerenveen or IFK Mariehamn. Moreover, it is also evident that in many of the cases, the football club is closely linked to regionalist or kin-state politics – as prominently evidenced by Athletic Club Bilbao, FC DAC 1904, Girona FC, FC Südtirol or HSK Zrinjski Mostar. This is also reflected in several examples of politicised fan behaviour, through singing of another state’s national anthem (as seen with fans of DAC 1904 and their ‘external homeland’ of Hungary), booing the national anthem of the perceived oppressor (this is the case of, for instance, SC Bastia) or emphasizing ethnonational differences (like in the example of Ruch Chorzów). As leading sports scholar Alan Bairner remarks, “it is undeniable that it is usually in the behaviour and attitudes of fans rather than those of the participants that the relationship between sport and identity becomes most apparent”, with the latter group being more pragmatically focused on successful sport careers.
This overview of ten cases is obviously relatively limited both in terms of depth and number, thus the authors’ intention is to build upon these by going further into depth and examining the linguistic practices of the clubs in both internal and external communication. Aspects such as the availability of multilingual websites, the balance of language used in social media channels will begin to show whether the club treats the minority language as a symbolic marketable selling point due to its uniqueness or a genuine linguistic differentiation reflecting the language practice use of the fan base.
* Craig Willis is a Researcher at the ECMI as well as a PhD candidate at the Europa-Universität Flensburg. His dissertation concerns the role of non-speakers in the audience strategies of minority language broadcasters in Spain and the UK, within which he has spent time as a visiting researcher at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. His past research has also included aspects related to socioeconomic participation and regional development in the context of national and linguistic minorities. Football wise, he is a keen football tourist; watching live games in 35 countries across Europe, Asia and South America including many of the clubs featured in this series.
* Will Hughes is a PhD candidate within the ESRC Nine DTP Human Geography Scholarship, based at Newcastle University under the supervision of Prof. Nick Megoran, Dr. Matthew Benwell and Prof. Stefanie Kappler (Durham University). His dissertation focuses on how knowledge is produced, ‘geographically scripted’ and transmitted within the context of a research institute, for which he focused on the ECMI as a case study. This involved a year-long research stay in Flensburg, based at the institution. His interest in football stretches beyond purely leisure; his BA thesis looked at the collective memory of ultras within Union Berlin and BSC Dynamo, conducting a number of in-person interviews during the summer of 2017.
* Dr. Sergiusz Bober is a Senior Researcher at the ECMI and head of the Politics and Civil Society Cluster. In a distant past he authored the blog www.futbolin.blox.pl, at that time a unique space in Poland’s internet offering content related to football in Latin America. Besides covering main leagues and international tournaments, the blog was also looking at historical aspects of the sport and its connections with politics and culture. He also produced more news-focused content concerning the beautiful game for the website of “Curara”, the magazine of Latin American Culture students at the Jagiellonian University, whilst regularly drafting longer texts concerning football for its print edition. Occasionally, he contributed also to the website www.tierralatina.pl, where some of his blog posts were shared as well. He still enjoys reading and writing about football. A relatively recent scientific proof of that is available here.