ECMI Minorities Blog. National and Linguistic Minorities in the Context of Professional Football across Europe: Five Examples from Non-kin State Situations.
* 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.
For many fans across Europe, this season is the first since before the Covid-19 pandemic to unfold without any restrictions in crowd size. Millions of fans are filling stadiums, bars and living rooms to cheer on ‘their club’, which are often analysed by scholars as ‘imagined communities’, for no fan of any team will ever meet, or even be aware of most of their fellow supporters on an individual level – ‘yet in the minds of each lives the image of the communion’. Football clubs are one of the most tribal phenomena of the twenty-first century, comparable to religion in terms of ‘scale, regularity and the profundity of its cycles and rituals’, yet equally inseparable from economics and politics. Whilst, superficially, the events of sporting fixtures carry little political significance, for many of Europe’s national and linguistic minorities football fandom takes on an extra dimension of identity – on an individual and collective scale, acting as a defining differentiation from the majority society.
The intersection of football and identity is hardly a topic overlooked in academia, with examples ranging from handbooks, monographs build around individual communities such as Basques or Jewish migrants in Argentina and “their” clubs, edited volumes providing overviews linked to particular analytical angles (like secessionism) or stand-alone research articles, sometimes published in journals dedicated to the subject of football understood as a social phenomenon of primary importance. With this blogpost, the authors would like to contribute to this ongoing discussion, by turning attention specifically to the aforementioned importance of football and identity in national and linguistic minority contexts. An area of high salience in everyday life, it often makes a significant aspect and focal point of the community. This is reflected in substantial media coverage in minority languages – an aspect highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic with the suspension of live sports leaving a vacuum of content for many outlets–but also in connections between clubs and political organizations representing minorities, their communication strategies reflecting linguistic identities/ideologies or fans using ethnicity-linked symbols during matches.
Consequently, this text offers a concise comparative look at five football clubs operating in entirely different minority contexts (alphabetically presented). There are two cases from Spain’s autonomous regions, characterized by the legacy of conservative dictatorship and either subsequent instances of politically motivated violence (the Basque Country) or strong, however hitherto unfulfilled, secessionist tendencies (Catalonia). Then there is the setting of Corsica, a relatively restive region which is nowadays primarily aspiring to a form of “real” autonomy within France’s broader centralism. The Dutch province of Friesland is perhaps the least problematic situation among those considered, when minority issues are taken into account. Whilst, the final minority setting concerns the Silesian minority in the Polish part of Upper Silesia – a minority that is not nationally, ethnically nor linguistically recognized. What all these complex situations share is the absence of a kin-state or, to use Rogers Brubaker’s terminology, the external national homeland.
This heterogeneity of contexts should assist in our attempt at answering the central question guiding this research: how are political tensions of an ethnic or linguistic nature reflected in the functioning of (the selected) football clubs and their fan bases?
The island’s most successful team SC Bastia (with the club’s logo proudly displaying the “Moor’s head” – a symbol of Corsican identity) and its supporters have been involved in numerous incidents whereby Corsican identity and French nationalism have clashed. SC Bastia’s ‘golden team’ of the late 70s and early 80s defeated AS Saint-Étienne in the final of the 1981 French Cup, with the island portraying the victory as a Corsican success over France rather than superiority of one specific club over another. Furthermore, before the 2002 final where Bastia played FC Lorient, La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) was met with incessant booing by the 20,000 Bastia fans in attendance, leading to President Chirac leaving the Stade de France momentarily during the match and strongly condemning the incident upon his subsequent return.
Similarly, league matches also lead to situations involving political controversies. For example, October 2014 saw a group of OGC Nice fans invading the pitch of their home stadium and players clashing, in response to Bastia’s substitute goalkeeper Jean-Louis Leca celebrating win by waving a Corsican flag. Before the match, the brandishing of colours and symbols linked to SC Bastia was banned by the regional authorities on the grounds that it was potentially provocative and thus would increase the risk of violent incidents. The club vehemently defended Leca by arguing that his was simply a Corsican player’s celebration of an important win. A subsequent ban on the showcasing of regional flags (including the Corsican one) during the opening ceremony of games, introduced by the Professional Football League (LFP), was ignored by both SC Bastia and their local rivals AC Ajaccio, with some pro-independence activists claiming that the imposing of such regulations amounted to anti-Corsican racism.
In terms of language, the club’s website is available primarily in French, however SC Bastia’s fans sharing pro-independence views emphasize the use of Corsican (it has the status of a regional language), with one of them in a recent interview saying: “Our songs are all in Corsican, our banners as well. This is authentic and cannot be enforced. We are different from the French”. At the same time, intriguing cases of mixed linguistic strategies have been observed on the terraces at Bastia’s Furiani Stadium with banners such as ‘Refugees welcome, France go home’ written in English, with a clear intention of highlighting for the international audience both the Corsica’s apartness from France and its different ideological choices.
Although the club is no longer associated with such figures as Charles Pieri (found guilty of running an extortion racket and sponsoring terrorist activities of the Corsican National Liberation Front–Union of Combatants) the above overview confirms that it remains quite responsive to its broader socio-political surroundings.
Athletic Club Bilbao
Probably the most famous example of a strong regional identity amongst internationally known football clubs is that of Athletic Club Bilbao, with their unique recruitment policy of ‘Basque-only’ players. Although one of a number of clubs in Spain with a regional identity, including other Basque examples, Athletic Club is one of the most prominent due to their aforementioned approach, evolving from Biscay-only to the whole of Euskal Herria. It is the only preserved policy of its kind – all the more remarkable that it is self-imposed, and they remain one of the most successful clubs in the country. Playing only Basque born or ‘formed’ (coming through a youth academy) footballers has been described as a Catch-22 situation; simultaneously a point of pride and uniqueness but also a limitation which has seen them seriously flirt with losing their top-flight status – yet ultimately decided that the ‘suffering and anxiety’ of under-performance was worthwhile for the enjoyment of local identity. This policy has previously been critiqued by some as being discriminatory, with the first black footballer for Athletic only appearing in 2011 – however there is now a reflection of the growing international immigration in Biscay seen on the pitch.
Formed through cooperation with British workers in the late 19th century, the club developed an English name which under Francoism was forcibly castilianised to Atlético de Bilbao in 1941, reverting to the English spelling only in 1972 and subsequently vehemently defended. During this time, the Basque flag (Ikurriña) was also banned and thus became a symbol of resistance to Francoism – immortalised in 1976 during the Euskal Derbia between Athletic and Real Sociedad when the captains of the two clubs carried together a home-made Ikurriña and placed it in the centre circle before the game; the most high-profile public display of Basque identity since Franco’s death the previous year. Such identity demonstrations are not isolated acts, with the fairly recent example being the club president Aitor Elizegi’s (himself a member of the Basque Nationalist Party) words supporting the participation of the Basque national team in continental competitions and the Basque independence. At the same time, the club has been frequently considered a factor unifying the otherwise politically divided Biscayans, with some fans claiming that ETA’s acts of terror indirectly contributed to ‘staining’ the club’s image in view of the outsiders.
The Basque identity of Athletic is arguably more expressed in cultural / geographical terms than linguistic, with the use of Euskara (the Basque language) a less pronounced element – in part a reflection of the comparatively lower number of Euskara speakers in the Bilbao area. However, the club does operate a trilingual website (with English as the third option) and also uses a certain amount of Euskara in merchandising such as bilingual scarves.
Based in southern Poland, Ruch Chorzów are one of the many football clubs of Upper Silesia. One of the most successful clubs in the country, they currently play in the second division, after two successive promotions following a season spent in the fourth tier due to financial problems. Upper Silesia, a historic cultural region, is nowadays spread across two Polish voivodeships (provinces) and also small parts of northern Czech Republic. Linguistically, the unrecognized Silesian is one of three main languages in the Polish part of the region, alongside German and Polish.
There are other prominent football clubs in the region, yet it is the fans of Ruch Chorzów which emphasise their Silesian identity more prominently than neighbouring rivals Górnik Zabrze or GKS Katowice, especially following the 1989 collapse of communism in Poland. Displays of Silesian identity at matches are frequent and controversial. For example, the hanging of banners “Oberschlesien” (Upper Silesia in German) and “To My Naród Śląski” (This is Us the Silesian Nation; a reference to the Silesian nationality, hitherto unrecognized in Poland) resulted in bans and longstanding debates concerning minority rights, the club’s complex history and the position of the Polish football authorities vis-a-vis such expressions of identity. Fans of Ruch have also been accused of disrespecting the national anthem of Poland – in an incident during the build-up to the 2012 Polish Cup final against Legia Warszawa when chanting (‘Górny Śląsk’) began before the anthem had finished. Footage of the event suggests confusion rather than malice, as the anthem unexpectedly started up again moments after the singing had begun.
Additionally, the victorious design for a competition to create the club’s new mascot was an eagle nicknamed ‘Adlerek’ ('little eagle’ in Silesian; it is derived from the German word ‘Adler’ and incomparable to the Polish ‘orzełek’). Currently renamed to ‘Adler’, the mascot makes an impression of a muscular superhero, undoubtedly of the Upper Silesian origin as its colours are an obvious reference to the regional symbols. In that sense, the Upper Silesia’s cultural and historical complexities are also showcased by the club itself. This is further highlighted by the fact that in promotional materials ‘Adler’ can be also heard speaking in Silesian. Similarly, the club is given a flag of Silesia by the Chorzów’s branch of the Silesian Autonomy Movement and then subsequently flies it at the stadium at the beginning of each season.
Whilst obviously not the most well-known of the clubs in Catalonia, Girona FC have risen from the lower leagues and are once again in La Liga this season. Located in the stronghold of Catalan pro-independence movement and a city which has a large percentage of Catalan speakers, the club reflects its surroundings. For example, the default version of its website is in Catalan. Thus, while as a club FC Barcelona identify as Catalan, the size and spread of their fanbase naturally transcends the Catalan speaking world, whereas Girona FC remain a regional club embedded largely in a local fanbase from the city and surroundings of Girona. As such, the Catalan identity and language is much more concentrated within the fanbase of Girona, plus the commitment to Catalan was demonstrated recently by current head coach, Míchel Sánchez, announcing he has been learning Catalan as he sees it necessary to integrate himself. Furthermore, one of the most well-known fans of the club is Carles Puigdemont, the former mayor of Girona and one of the leaders of the Catalan pro-independence movement. In June 2017, when hosting the club’s delegation to celebrate the recently won promotion to Spain’s highest football league, he remarked that this achievement proves there are no “impossible dreams”. Interestingly, the ceremony took place the day before the official announcement of the date and question of the Catalan independence referendum.
There have previously been accusations by Girona FC supporter groups that FC Barcelona have utilised their Catalan identity as a brand, adopting the use of the Catalan ‘Senyera’ pattern in their kit, whilst giving little back to the region’s smaller clubs. However, in the past decade Girona FC have gone through their own transformation, being bought out by the City Football Group (CFG) – the Emirati owners of several clubs across the world, most prominently Manchester City. In a series of interviews with supporter groups, scholars Xavier Ginesta and Jordi de San Eugenio found that the local roots and the identity of the city of Girona were paramount for such groups, who reject the notion of Girona FC as a brand.
Based in the province of Friesland in the Netherlands, where the West Frisian language holds official status at the provincial level, SC Heerenveen successfully play in the top division of Dutch football, managing to remain in the Eredivisie since 1993 and regularly qualifying for European competitions during the 2000s, with their high points being a domestic cup victory in 2009 and qualification for the UEFA Champions League group stages in 2000-2001.
Fans of the club incorporate many elements of Frisian culture into their support, like singing its national anthem prior to each home fixture and displaying the flag prominently on the club badge. The blue and white diagonal stripes and red pompeblêden (known as seeblatts in heraldry and often mistaken for hearts) are highly recognisable even for football fans outside of the Netherlands. Importantly, the club highlights its proximity to the regional identity also through other means, with its website, for example, stating that “sc Heerenveen is Fryslân en Fryslân is sc Heerenveen” (SC Heerenveen is Friesland and Friesland is SC Heerenveen) or that the “Frisian mentality” belongs to the club’s core values. The identity-related aspects are also reflected in the pronouncements of companies signing sponsorship deals with the club, with references to sharing the Frisian identity and mentality being very prominent. Although in a 2016 report of the Fries Sociaal Planbureau supporting SC Heerenveen was mentioned only as the sixteenth out of 18 ranked things important for Frisian identity, still almost 50% of respondents agreed with the club’s significance in this respect, thus revealing its commercial potential as a Frisian brand.
Such demonstrations of Frisian identity are not free of contradictions and inconsistencies. The current squad features only two players born in Friesland, with the problem being highlighted already in 2011 by the Frisian National Party, when it asked the club to keep Geert-Arend Roorda, by arguing that without him the club would not have a single Friesland-born player. Furthermore, the club’s website is available mostly in Dutch, with Frisian underrepresented, however visible in spaces of prominence. For example, SC Heerenveen’s strategic plan for the period 2019-2022 is titled in Frisian.
An interesting side-aspect is the club’s rivalry with fellow Friesland team SC Cambuur. It is focused on the interregional differentiation within the broader Frisian identity, with Cambuur proudly distancing themselves from it despite being based in Leeuwarden, the province’s capital. Heerenveen fans typically reside in villages and small towns throughout the region rather than being centred in the town of Heerenveen itself; thus, Cambuur supporters often refer to their Heerenveen counterparts derisively as ‘boren’ (farmers).
What does the snapshot presented above tell us about the dynamics mentioned in the research question? Despite their heterogeneity, the cases certainly demonstrate how the local or regional identity of a group that sees itself as different in cultural or linguistic terms can manifest itself through a football club. In that sense, all of the clubs analysed above are ultimately a reflection of the society they are embedded in. This is visible at three levels. Firstly, all five cases have at least some groups within their fanbase who use a minority language and/or symbols and identify or engage with regional political developments or movements. Yet, as Mariann Vaczi observed, a football club can function as a nationalist symbol for some of its fans but not necessarily for all of them, with Athletic Club being the case in point. At the second level, the clubs themselves respond to such initiatives either out of “prudence and opportunism” (to quote Didier Rey) or conviction, and consequently accept identity-related manifestations and symbols at the stadiums, offer multilingual (or partially multilingual) websites, sell merchandising highlighting local and regional socio-linguistic contexts etc. Finally, the clubs discussed above are certainly of interest for politicians supporting strong regional autonomies or even independence of their regions. Interestingly, the clubs rather rarely distance themselves from such figures, whilst in some cases broader political and managerial roles at the clubs can overlap.
Although this broad outline seems to be adequate for all of the discussed cases, there are, obviously, differences between them. At one end of this scale, Athletic Club draws heavily upon their Basque / Biscayan identity in their marketing, ‘club philosophy’, language ideology and proximity to the region’s political elite. At the opposite end, one can locate perhaps Ruch Chorzów, where the identity is not immediately prevalent to the same extent. Even in this case, however, and in spite of the aforementioned lack of recognition of the Silesian nationality and language enhancing the controversy, the club highlights its complex history and current social setting. Other clubs lie somewhere in the middle due to, for example, inconsistent use of minority languages (SC Bastia and SC Heerenveen) or international ownership arguably distancing the club from local / regional political dynamics in certain dimensions (Girona FC).
A broader question remains: how are such trends affected by the existence of a linguistic kin-state? This will be examined in the following blog post, expanding the comparative scope and resulting in a more holistic answer to the main research question addressed above.