What the Super League neglected: collective identity and regionalism

Something slightly different today. As many of you have done too, I have watched the news surrounding the Super League with great surprise. I was not surprised that the Super League was introduced, not at all, because it has been in the works for quite some time now – but I was surprised by the lack of sympathy and empathy towards the people that make the game how it is: the fans.

The fans make the game. There has been a lot written about the financial impact of these decisions to clubs and fans, but fans are not necessarily impacted by finances and getting results every single time. What fans want and what football is all about is identification. The feeling of identifying with a club, what it represents and how it connects with your direct environment. And that is what this article is all about.

In this article I will look at several aspects of cultural identity that are connected with football and assess that these aspects are vital when looking at any new platform or idea within football.

Cultural nationalism
Supporting a football team has a lot to do with regionalism and nationalism. The term nationalism perhaps has a different and negative connotation, because of the 19th century ideology which has sparked racism, antisemitism and extreme capitalism – but there are different kinds of nationalism. To make a distinction is important as in football we focus on a nationalism that is concentrated on culture.

We speak of three different kinds of nationalism:

  • State nationalism
  • Ethnic nationalism
  • Cultural nationalism

State nationalism is based on the fact where you are born. That is the collective idea of identifying with nationalism on base of a law called jus soli – which can be translated as the Law of Soil. The opposite of that kind of nationalism is ethnic nationalism which is based on the ethnicity of the person in question. In this is based on a law called jus sanguinis – which can be translated as the Law of Blood. These two represent two typical sides of the debate in nationalism, but like said before I’m looking at a type of nationalism that lies between the aforementioned nationalism types: cultural nationalism.

Cultural nationalism doesn’t deal with ethnicity or the place where you were born, but concentrates on the fact of shared values of culture, traditions and language/dialects. This is something we can translate to football in a few things when looking at a fan’s perspective: the crest/logo of a club, the colours of the kit, the songs that are sung in the stadiums/ground, the connection to a city or region, the political affiliation of the fans, the flags, the history and the connection to emotions: the highs of good times and the lows of bad times.

Regionalism vs Globalisation
In this article and in terms of the Super League, we don’t speak about nationalism in the traditional sense because of the fact that we are talking about clubs and not nations – so in that case the nationalist sentiment is transfered to a specific area or region.

The world is more connected than ever at this time. Internet has opened a lot of doors and every day you can speak to people from all over the world and follow the news in every country of the world. We see federations growing and more agents and organisations get involved in supranationalist policies. Now, I’m not going to say whether this is good or bad, but we have seen that the idea of a more global organisation like the European Union can lead to nationalist sentiment. This idea is fueled by the idea that people will lose their values, traditions and as a result of that: their true identity.

This is also true for football in Europe. We have seen clubs going into mergers or getting new owners, which leads to disappointment and anger with the fans. What happens is that people become alienated from a football club that once represented their values and traditions. So in that light, people tend to support their local club more with the idea that it represents who they are rather than the so-called superclubs who have more businesses than a club you can identify with come Saturday.

“A local geographic space only becomes a meaningful locale which informs action when individuals in particular social networks invest that locale with significance. The ‘locale’ becomes the symbol of the social network; it is a shared understanding developed by a particular group about the nature of their social group which is employed by members of the group to maintain and regulate their relations with each other and to denote appropriate forms of conduct. The locale comes to embody the central understandings of the group and acts as a common cultural resource by which members of the group are called to order.” – Anthony King (Football fandom and post-national identity in the New Europe)

In the quote above we can see that the cultural hub that is a football club is not something organic, but is given meaning by the participants of that local hub. The identity of many is formed by that particular club and they give meaning to society, which is why the role of that club is so important in times of ongoing European integration.

The more we see supra-nationalist bodies emerge in different aspects of life, the more people will stand against for the sake of their identity. They have the feeling they are losing their identity and without identity, who are we? That feeling of uncertainty or feeling of being overlooked/forgotten, is something that strikes the core of our being.

The ‘Other’
If we take on the idea of the football club as representation of a shared identity, than we also speak of the ‘other’. In this context it means the existence of rivalry with another region. This can only happen when your identity is resembling that of the football club and it’s in your identity to have a shared rivalry with another football club and region. With the assimilation and integration of bigger and more global concepts of football, that part of the identity can be lost as well.

Collective identity within football
So we have the idea of a collective identity, but why is this is so important? It’s the sole of supporting a football club. It’s what gives people meaning, a sort of security in this whole full of insecurities. If you take that away, people find themselves lost in a way. The ESL has tried to take superclubs away from that what makes football so great: the fans and their identity. In doing so they have taken the risk that clubs will not be able to play domestically, which would have great impact on people’s lives and careers.

That risk has sparked an energy and reaction from the fans as we have seen over the past day, and the ESL has failed to acknowledge that. During these days we have seen the imagined identity grow into a real football community wherein the collective identity has grown into strong sentiments.

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