The discourse of unique national style of soccer spread by the media
Sports can evoke great emotions that can rarely be experienced in everyday life. This is especially true of soccer, which is said to be the most popular sport in the world.
For example, if your country’s team wins the World Cup or other international tournament, the nation turns into revelry. This is true in Japan, as well as in European and South American countries.
That festive fervor creates a sense of unity among the people. That is one of the great powers of a sport like soccer.
What is it about soccer that gives it such power? A look at the history of soccer in South America, where it has been widely popular among the people for more than 100 years, reveals something.
Soccer began in South America in the mid-19th century, brought to the region by the British expats who had established themselves in various parts of the continent.
At first, soccer was a strange game for local people, who had never seen or played it before, but it gradually attracted their interest and attention, and by the beginning of the 20th century, clubs were founded one after another by local people.
In the process, the “national” style of soccer, supposedly unique to each country, gradually evolved. For example, in the 1920s, an Argentine sports magazine published an article that described Argentine soccer as a light and flamboyant style that used a lot of dribbling and individual skills, as opposed to the collective, powerful, but monotonous English style of soccer.
Journalists from the middle-class used newspapers, magazines, radio, and other media that were becoming widely available among the masses at the time to create an image of a “unique Argentine style of soccer” by contrasting it with English soccer.
This is how the Argentinean people came to use soccer as the basis for their own identity as it transformed from something alien into one of their favorite pastimes.
This discourse of “national” style can be found not only in Argentina, but also in other European countries.
For example, the German soccer is about the spirit of never giving up, of running across the corpses of your fellow countrymen and still winning in the end. The Spanish style would often refer to a brilliant style of a technical connection of short passes.
However, the question arises as to whether these discourses truly reflect the reality.
The illusion of soccer fosters nationalism
For example, Spain came to be known for its short-passing style of soccer only when a number of Barcelona players, who were familiar to the quick, attacking, and pass-oriented soccer, joined the national team in the 2000s. With that style, Spain won the 2010 World Cup.
However, Barcelona’s style of soccer has been noted as a peculiar style even within Spain to begin with.
Germany was criticized in the 2022 World Cup for failing to demonstrate their customary tenaciousness. However, it is not true that Germany had always won at the World Cup.
Furthermore, in today’s globalized world, it is not unusual for any national teams to have players with diverse roots. Germany has also added players of Turkish and African descent. Under these circumstances, terms such as “German spirit” sound rather empty.
In other words, the discourse of unique xx style of soccer is not always connected to reality. It can possibly be said that the winning style has remained as a strong memory among the media and fans.
This illusion of soccer is a reflection of national consciousness, or how the people regard themselves and their fellows.
For example, Brazilian soccer considered artistry and improvisation as its supreme virtue in contrast to the regularity of the European soccer. This is because throughout the 20th century, many journalists have tried to find the “Brazilian soccer style” in the physical and temperamental characteristics that black slaves and their descendants allegedly brought to Brazilian society, such as unique dance-like movements and a certain unrestrained spirit.
Behind this conviction lies the fact that since the mid-20th century, the theory of racial democracy, which celebrates intermixing and harmony among races, has flourished as a defining characteristic of Brazil, as opposed to the United States, where racial discrimination has been evident.
In other words, Brazilian nationalism further created the illusion of a soccer style, and the illusion further fostered nationalism, so there was interaction between them.
In this sense, the illusion is not meaningless, and it is precisely because of the illusion that soccer generates public enthusiasm, which transcends the realm of entertainment and has the power to make people imagine in real terms what “our country” should be like.
What will change as we become more aware of the illusion of soccer
Argentina won the World Cup in 2022. Even with this victory, I think it would be difficult for Messi, the heart of this team, to rank with Maradona, Argentina’s cult hero.
The underlying illusion of Argentine soccer, which emphasizes individual skills, is the narrative that great players are born out of precarious living conditions, where kids are too poor to afford balls and spikes. If a player uses a sock as a ball that does not bounce or roll on a bumpy, open field, it is impossible for him to pass the ball properly. As a result, they have to hone their dribbling skills by skillfully manipulating the ball with the soles of their feet and outwitting their opponents with feints and nutmegs.
While Maradona, born and raised in a poor family on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, embodies these narratives that define Argentine soccer more strongly than any other, Messi, who is widely known for moving to Europe as a child and being raised in the most advanced and well-developed environment in the world at Barcelona, is unable to ride that narrative.
The fervor generated by sports has the power not only to reinforce existing nationalism but also to change it.
For example, when France won the 1998 World Cup, it was said that the fact that Zidane, a key player in the team, was the son of Algerian immigrants helped to foster harmony with Algerian immigrants in French society.
This may have been only temporary, brought about by the fervor and festive feeling of winning the World Cup. Nevertheless, soccer will continue to provide us with opportunities to change society. It is up to us to try to nurture those opportunities.
It is a wonderful thing that soccer and other sports evoke emotions. This is a great attraction that sports can bring and should not be lost.
On the other hand, think for a moment about why we root for, sympathize with, and become so enthusiastic about national team players who are not even close relatives in reality.
The image of “our country” to which each of us believes we belong can only be clearly understood through the illusory bias that has been created by the media. The enthusiastic sense of unity that sports create is very enjoyable and comforting, but if we take a step back from it, it can also provide a good opportunity to think about the origins and structure of nationalism. This is also one of the ways to enjoy sports.
* The information contained herein is current as of April 2023.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.
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