Shafinaaz Hassim
Shafinaaz Hassim

The sociology of soccer

A few weeks ago, I was invited to respond to a paper at a seminar jointly hosted by the departments of sociology and anthropology at the University of Johannesburg. The presenter was soccer sociologist Dr Marc Fletcher, a post-doctoral fellow in the department and his paper interrogated as part of a larger thesis, that both race and class divisions are/continue to be significant variables between fans of local soccer and fans of international soccer, all residing in Johannesburg, and that these divisions were also further entrenched by perceived “fear”.

The discussions that ensued, enlightened me to the threads we might draw between how sport, and soccer in particular, has evolved over the years in South Africa, how it has emerged as fluid through the apartheid regime, and beyond the transformation.

Questions about perceived whiteness and blackness emerge from reading the rich data presented in Fletcher’s paper. These are relative concepts if one absorbs the data that suggests, a white South African might feel “unsafe” in the precinct of a Kaiser Chiefs match, or as a friend recently pointed out to me, that a black South African might feel unsafe at a rugby game at Loftus.

It begins to unravel for me, what this all says about our levels of comfort, and how we insist on holding onto the persistent stereotypes of colour. Defining race and racialised categorisations in post-apartheid South Africa has to take into consideration a break from historical explications of race and a greater embedded-ness in stereotypes that persist on the international sports field. Class comment suggested that affordability and proximity to matches, made a difference as to who attended matches in Randburg vs Orlando Stadium. It also pointed to the gross inaccessibility of the World Cup 2010 to the majority of South African citizens, regardless of colour, as compared to the price of, for example, tickets at the Afcon games earlier this year.

But it also had me thinking: is race a consideration even at the level of selection, and does this decide the demographic of fans? Does the team reflect the fan base or vice versa? What are the challenges that continue to be faced in breaking divisions in South African sport, and in successfully positioning sport as a tool for nation-building?

Durkheim provides a conceptual basis for unpacking race in the interests of understanding how to bring forth social change and social solidarity. This theorising also creates an opportunity to critically evaluate social conflict while recognising the potential that sport, just like religion, can be seen to be a basis of both collective worship and conflict.

How is that worship and conflict expressed? If we take it further, in the South African context, in terms of both racialised and class-based following, we’re made to ask if it is a kind of religion that in fact perpetuates historical divisions.

Another question that plagued me based on a local case late last year when a team was not allowed to play in a league based on their change in demographic, suggesting they had a competitive advantage, was really how to map out the perceptions of ethnicity and credibility on the sports field, and to measure how this might translate among fans. The danger of stereotyping on the basis of ethnicity and ability, and of groups taken as isolated from wider society in particular ways fails to take into consideration an integrated social structure of individuals constantly being shaped by and shaping their reality. It treats “ethnicity” as an object, albeit an alien one of sorts, and leaves it in a box, frozen in a historic past.

Racial discourse is followed closely by conditions of masculinity on the soccer field. Signifiers of competence are linked also to established masculine behaviour. Is the rhetoric of a “man’s game” taken to mean that in order to seem credible in fan’s eyes, the perceived conditions of masculinity must be adhered to? And is it socially acceptable for fans to be violent, first by trying to anger or offend opposition team players and then to engage in a kind of warfare against opposition team supporters? In many ways soccer is seen as masculine domain and male relationships on field are seen as hetero-normative interactions; there remains a guarded cover of “deviant” sexuality. By suggestion, any other perspective would damage the way the game is viewed. Are we as a society hereby endorsing bad behaviour; this goes for homophobia, violence, racism, and sexism?

I’m also trying to interrogate whether the notorious post-game violence that erupts and often fuels racial tension, a function of racism or soccer fanaticism. A culture of endorsed hooliganism is certainly not unique to South African soccer.

Also, I’m not sure if this is a post-World Cup phenomenon in SA, but there seems to be a widespread allegiance to sports bars and public spaces where international games can be viewed by fans who are not able to view the games from their homes. This potentially removes the bias that the majority of locals only have access to local soccer.

Hosting the World Cup 2010 highlighted some of the discrepancies in global and local soccer, the prior racialised assumptions that arrived with it and the exclusivist practices of class-based sport. If South African soccer was seen as a communal, socially cohesive effort, we need to ask questions about the neo-liberalisation of local soccer and what that means for the fan base; whether that further divides access to the game on racial and social class lines.

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