Saturday, December 15, 2007

Football Romantics

So. Starting to come down from a few weeks worth of work which should qualify as torture under the Geneva Convention, I have been reading a new book called Football in the Americas: Futbol, Futebol, Soccer, a collection of essays by primarily Latin American authors (plus, inevitably, a theoretical piece by Richard Giulianotti).

I'll review the book as a whole later; what I want to draw everyone's attention to one particular essay by a Mexico City-based anthropologist named Roger Magazine, entitled Football Fandom and Identity in Mexico: The Case of Pumas Football and Youth Football Club. I'll go out on a limb here and say that this is probably the most kick-ass ten pages of academic writing on football ever.

It opens with a very nice overview of the nature of the rivalry between the country's four "national" teams (i.e. teams with national followings). This is an excellent primer, and one long overdue: of all the world's major football leagues, the Mexican league probably gets the least coverage in English-language press and literature. He briefly enumerates the club identities of America (the club of modern big-business), Cruz Azul (the club of the organized urban proletariat) and Chiapas (the club of indigeneous Mexicanos, sort of a ibero-American version of Athletic Bilbao) before moving to his main subject, the youth-oriented Pumas UNAM.

If there's a slight failing to this article, it's that he doesn't dwell sufficiently on Pumas' intiguing past or that of Mexican football as a whole. The sport developed relatively late in Mexico. Unlike Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Italy where the sport took hold between 1890 and 1920, the blossoming of Mexican football really didn't take place until the 1930s. It was preceded, of all things, by American football, which still has a signifcant following in Mexico (a trip from the airport to downtown Mexico City will take you past at least two gridiron fields). The Universidad National Autonoma de Mexico's sports teams had been initially been given their blue-and-gold colours by American sports coaches from, of all places, Notre Dame.

In any case, Magazine's central insight is that football supporters' groups - known in Mexico as porra - belong ideologically to the Romantic movement. While they belong to the Age of Reason and exist to support teams which operate in the classic rationalist framework of a football league, their behaviour is driven by a love and passion which is fundamentally irrational. And he highlights the romantic nature of football support by showing what happens when a supporters' group tries to modernize itself.

In the mid-90s, the UNAM supporters' group
Orgullo Azul y Oro was still old-school. Leadership rested in one man, who chose the songs, the banners, etc. As part of the overall democritization of life in Mexico last decade, the orgullo Azul y Oro also underwent a change, with new leadership asking for democratic elections and more member participation in terms of things like choice and order of songs.

This, not to put too fine a point on it, was a disaster. Elections mean formal memberships (otherwise, how do you know who can vote?) which in turn requires a bureauracy. Taking members' suggestions requires making choices among suggestons, which in turn means some people will be aggrieved and - in this case - make accusations (whether justified or not) about clientelism at the top. In short, democracy and the critical framework it provided led to the fracturing of the porra.

Intriguingly, all this occurred at the same time that the effects of sponsorship was making itself felt. Nike offered free shirts to all porra members provided they wear them to every game. Part of the porra (including the new leadership) thought this was a great idea since the "uniform" would give their tifo a more uniform look. Others felt that requiring them to wear team colours was an insult as wearing the team colours should always be seen as a choice born of devotion.

True fandom, like Romanticism, is emotional, heartfelt and passionate and stands opposed to tradtional hierarchies and to democratic and scientific rationalism. It doesn't matter if the team hasn't scored for 800 minutes - we bleed for them nonetheless.

The loyalty this romantic attitude engenders is admirable, of course, but it clearly has its dark side, too. Romanticism can lead to a lack of critical space (it emphasizes the use of the heart, not the head) and an over-relaiance on charismatic leaders (orgullo members never complained about their song suggestions not being adopted under the old hardline regime). And clearly, the attraction of being part of a supporters' group lies in a deep tribal instinct which has echoes of in some of history's less pleasant mass movements.

Fandom, like all romantic movements, lies with all its collectivist emotional baggage on a knife-edge between good and evil. And it's a very thin edge indeed.

Looking back here, I realise that as usual I haven't really done my subject justice. All I can say is - find the book and read the thought-provoking article yourself - you won't be disappointed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice to see you posting again.

Surely he is referring to "Chivas" (aka Club Deportivo Guadalajara) rather than Jaguares de Chiapas, who have only been in existence for a few years.

2:20 AM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

Not only is he referring to it, he actually wrote it that way - it's my hasty transcription at fault.

3:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone calls them "Chivas" now.

It sounds like a very interesting article and the "Romantic" tag tends to ring true for me; I'll be sure to look for the book when I am next on your side of the ocean.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

It's actually an English book - I got it on

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting.

Looking around a bit, I discovered that Magazine has written a book on the same subject (, which features in an interesting syllabus for a freshman seminar at the University of Oregon that one can view here (

So much to read, so little time to do so.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Chris Paul said...

Can I just point out that one of Romanticism's essential concerns is that of the Indivividual- so the assertion that the collective consciousness of football is a romantic notion would appear to me to be an, uh, logical falsheood.

any article on this area should really trace the development of mass consciouness from heterodox local communities rather than from an undemocratic centre, and what role this takes in the formation of identity. also, fascinatingly enough, the hegemony that takes place when this fracturous local sense of collective self finds expression in the national...AGH!

Tambien el concepto del idol romantico se encontre expresion en la utopianisma de Bolivar y San Martin que es contra el notion del estados... pero que es esto que escribo pero mi culo entonces...

Is anyone else now remembering that Monty Python sketch with the football team made up of philosophers?

love from chris at

5:02 AM  
Blogger M said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:50 PM  
Blogger M said...

I suppose I am not a Romantic, then.

(Sorry for the shameless self-promotion...the latest is post is actually related, I swear.)

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who else thinks that sport has gone too far? I mean there is so much money involved in sport now that there is very little sport left anymore. Sport spread betting used to be frowned upon when I was a kid as it made people desperate for money to bet with but now it’s nothing compared to how disgraceful a footballer’s salary is! These people train a few times a week and play one game a week if they’re lucky and get paid a week more than I earn a year! And yet no authority has ever questioned it! Why!? There’s a minimum wage, why can’t there be a maximum wage as well based on the type of job? So all you betters out there, why don’t you start spread betting on how much players are going to be paid next instead of what used to be sport?

7:18 AM  

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