From its humble beginnings to a now multi-million-pound industry, the ‘beautiful game’ is an economic asset, a cultural hallmark, a political (excuse the pun) football, and a social barometer. For these reasons, football and the recent Euros demand sociological analyses: they provide an extraordinary lens through which we can think about society, human relations, social inequalities, and social norms.
Even the telling of the history of football is revealing – while it is popular to attribute the origin of football to a 19th century English school game played at Eton, this narrative neglects the versions of the game that were played by the Aztecs over 3000 years ago, and Cuju, a game with a round ball, that emerged in China in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. Another often forgotten part of football’s history is the FA’s decision to ban the game for women in 1921, despite matches attracting crowds of over 50,000 spectators. Sociology asks us to be considered in our global northern telling of history.
Unifying hope and building identity
Thirty-one million people in the UK watched the Euro final on the 11th of July 2021, the highest TV audience since the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. This stands then as moment of what Durkheim calls collective effervescence: an opportunity where a community or society can cohere, unifying in shared excitement, rituals and hopes. It teaches us about the importance of identity, of conviviality, of shared norms and of belonging. It reveals how we together construct and perform the glue of social life. In these ways, football can be about coming home.
But football is also a site of inequality, racism, and gender power relations – a place where bonds are weakened and sometimes deliberately unsettled. The average weekly wage of a premier league footballer is just over £60,000, an annual salary of over 3 million, compared the average UK weekly salary of £534. Studying inequality is central to sociology and has never been more pressing. Mike Savage’s recent book for instance, teaches us that inequality is stark and deepening, with the rich pulling away from the rest of us and the super-rich pulling away from the rich.
‘Taking the knee’ at the Euros was a way for the English players to publicly condemn the racism and oppression that remains inherent in our society and beleaguers the game, so often expressed overtly through football crowds and social media. British Black players were subject to a torrent of racist abuse after the defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final but there was also a swift anti-racist response – a petition to ban racists for life from all football matches in the UK quickly garnered over one million signatures. Of course, this overt racism of chants and tweets is more visible and arguably more easily called out. The covert, invisible institutional racism that sociology also documents is much more difficult to prove and challenge. Cashmore and Cleland ask why aren’t there more Black football managers, and data from the Professional Footballers Association also shows that only 4% of backroom staff are from minoritised groups, yet Black and Asian footballers constitute almost 30% of players.
A ripple effect
The beautiful game has other ugly faces. A study in 2014 showed that intimate partner violence increased by 38% when England lost and by 26% when they won or drew. Researchers at the LSE have shown that alcohol consumption is linked to these spikes and have campaigned for the later scheduling of games to minimise the time spent drinking after the match. Social research can help to make a difference. Gender inequality is felt in other ways. While women’s football may be growing in popularity, the players find it much harder to sustain their career: they are paid significantly less than their male counterparts – 99 times less to be precise, and two-thirds of women who work in football report that they have experienced discrimination, with their complaints of bullying often dismissed as ‘banter’. Again, football offers us an insight into structural and patriarchal inequalities that characterise wider society.
Why there has never been a more important time to study sociology
In our book, How to be a Sociologist, we argue there has never been a more important to study sociology and to become a sociologist. Football is just one example of where we can see how large-scale social structures shape our personal experiences, and how social interaction can give our lives meaning or can be exclusionary.
The promise of sociology is to provide a holistic understanding of social life, to shine a light on inequality, injustice, and power imbalances. Sociology, in its asking of difficult questions and its challenging of apparent truths, permits us to see the world differently and imaginatively. In doing this, sociology also aspires to make a difference by showcasing what makes for a good society and by identifying what might help transform our social world so that we can all live better lives.
By Dr Sarah Cant, Principal Lecturer and the Director of Academic Studies in the School of Law, Policing and Social Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University
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