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Fútbol and Heritage in Argentina

For the past ten days, I have been in Argentina – specifically Buenos Aires and Rosario – leading a course about soccer and globalization in conjunction with the Clemson men’s soccer program. The students had a series of lectures and presentations pre-departure, mostly based off of Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of GlobalizationFoer’s thesis is that “globalization has failed to diminish soccer’s local cultures, local blood feuds, and local corruption, and may have actually increased the power of local entities.” The students have been asked to reflect on this global/local tension of soccer cultures through a series of seminar discussions and journal entries while we are in country. Upon our return to the United States, the students will have to complete a major paper that, in part, addresses Foer’s thesis as viewed through the lens of their own experiences in Argentina, including playing games against local squads (such as the reserve teams of San Lorenzo and Newell’s Old Boys, to name but two), going to local matches (including at River Plate and Argentinos Juniors), and through their own informal interactions with the sporting and non-sporting cultures of Argentina.

As you can imagine, the students have experienced many different aspects of globalization and its local resistance throughout the journey thus far, from playing an impromptu five-on-five street match against locals in the La Boca community to being swept-up in the atmosphere of El Monumental during a match.


(Street match in La Boca)

During my conversations with the students, and perhaps because of my own research interests, the role of heritage and its relationship to Argentinian fútbol has become a focal point of our discussions. One of the aspects I pointed out to the students, particularly after we toured La Bombonera – home of Boca Juniors – and visited the team museum, is that heritage (including team traditions, history, rituals, and culture) is one of the products that is packaged and sold to fans both locally and globally. Similarly, I told them that touring team museums and stadiums was, in a sense, an entry-point for many to acquire or re-enforce their fandom. Judging by the number of students who left La Bombonera with Boca merchandise (and who said they would support Boca upon their return to the US, despite the fact we did not actually see Boca play in their home stadium), there is something to the theory that experiencing heritage may lead to support and fandom.


(Touring La Bombonera)

The students noticed that, despite the local cultures and chants, the teams were largely sponsored by international companies – and, often, American companies like DirectTV. They also commented that most of the music played in the stadiums we went to were American or British artists.


(Watching a game at El Monumental, home of River Plate)

However, the interesting thing that the students did mention – and related to both globalization and heritage – were the styles of play they were encountering when playing against Argentinian clubs. They noted that it was a very distinct style of play, similar to the style that the Argentinian national team plays, primarily in terms of speed and aggression. Interestingly, they noted that some of the teams they’ve played anticipated a very “American” style of play from Clemson, and were surprised when Clemson played above expectations. Similarly, they have noted both the style of refereeing to be different and, in some cases, more knowledgable than US referees (with a few exceptions). They have also been enamoured with the fact that they are immersed in a soccer culture all the time, something that they rarely get to experience in the US.


(Clemson versus San Lorenzo, with the Estadio Pedro Bidegain in the background)

One of the interesting aspects I have noticed at each of the grounds we have visited are the murals situated outside of the stadiums. While many are fútbol-related, others appear to be more about social and political struggle.


(Two murals, one fútbol-related at San Lorenzo, the other more politically related at Boca Juniors)

We still have a few days remaining in-country, and I expect there will be more lessons to be learned – both on and off the pitch. We have seen some of the impacts of inflation in the country, and while in Buenos Aires we witnessed several major protests right on our doorstep. The students have two more games to play in Rosario, as well as a number of non-sport activities including a city tour, and I expect we will have many more interesting discussions about globalization, heritage, and soccer.

Sports Beach Books

I’ve long been a fan of well-written sports literature.  Part of this interest comes from the day job (or, perhaps, the interest in sports lit lead to the day job. Chicken, egg, etc.) though I normally read sports lit for pleasure regardless of what is going on research-wise.  Of course, sometimes the sports lit does make it’s way into my research, and more often than not my pleasure reading will inspire research directions, but in general I just like a good sports book.  Although I will occasionally read more fluffy sports biographies and memoirs, I tend to drift towards those books with a broader social, culture, historical, and aesthetic direction. However, during the summer, I like a good sports “beach book” as well – something with a bit of heft but not so weighty as to feel like assigned reading for a graduate sport sociology or sports geography class.  Thus, while I believe CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to be a masterpiece of literature – sport or otherwise – I think it might be too dense for a this list.  You don’t bring Moby Dick to the cabana, after all.

With that in mind, here are a few of my favourite sports “beach books.”  Each of these, I believe, are engrossing reads while also being a bit more critical or introspective.  Some are very well known, others are a little obscure.  In any event, I hope you find a couple of them as interesting and engaging to read as I did.

The Following Game by Jonathan Smith – Last August I wrote at length about The Following Game and, I must admit, it is a book to which I return often.  I won’t add much to what I wrote last summer, except to say that it is a beautiful, gentle, and very wise book.  Essential, even if you don’t like or know nothing about cricket.

Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy by Ed Hawkins and The Fix by Declan Hill – The integrity of sporting results, particularly the role the international gambling market plays in setting particular outcomes, is a important contemporary issue.  Although match fixing has been around as long as sport, instantaneous communications makes sports gambling an international phenomenon.  While Hawkins explores cricket betting, particularly in India, and Hill looks at match fixing in soccer, each offer fascinating insights into how easy it is to manipulate results.  And, well, both read a bit like spy novels too – which makes them even better.

Open by Andre Agassi – Famous for Agassi confessing that he hates tennis despite having been one of the world’s top players, it is also probably the best sports memoir I have ever read.  It is very well-written and absolutely engrossing from first page to last.

Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson – This book is, in some ways, a contemporary version of Dave Meggyesy’s classic Out of their League, where Jackson describes – in unflinching details – the life of an everyday, average NFL player. You see the glory, but you also see the guts – and it ain’t pretty.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – Still holds up, even two-decades later.  This is more than a memoir of a life lived through Arsenal football, it is an anthropology of fandom.  And, it also features some of the most memorable lines in sports literature (“I fell in love with football as I was to later fall in love with women…” etc.)

Slouching Towards Fargo by Neal Karlen – A year in the life of the (very) minor league St. Paul Saints, Karlen’s book is far from a romantic view of America’s favourite pastime. A very unvarnished look at the desperation of minor league baseball.

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs – If you’re beach books include poetry, and perhaps of the more intense variety, Maggs’ semi-fictional account of Terry Sawchuk, one of hockey’s greatest and most tragic figures, is well worth a read.  There are many great hockey books, though this is probably the best of the lot.

Tropic of Hockey by Dave Bidini – Part travelogue, part search for the soul of hockey, Bidini looks for the commonalities that link those of us who play (or played) the game in different corners of the globe.  As someone who played competitively, but also later loved his weekly game of “shinny” with the boys, Bidini’s book shows that we all share a bond through the game regardless of our geography.

The Great Tamasha by James Astill – Cricket, and in particular the dramatic changes in the sport from where three-hour T20 matches complete with celebrities, cheerleaders, and exploding scoreboards now rule the roost, becomes a metaphor for the rapid changes in contemporary India. Page-turner that links sport with geo-politics.


Heritage and the World Cup

David Lowenthal, in his essential text The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, contends that blood – in particular the real or imagined hereditary relationship we share with the past – is one of the most basic elements of heritage.  We might have an actual lineage to a particular past, or we imagine that we ought to, and as such, we claim certain traits, identities, and histories as our own.  Lowenthal’s contention came to mind today when thinking about the World Cup and, in particular, how we as spectators choose which team to support.  In the case of those fans from the 32 nations in the tournament, perhaps the choice is fairly clear.  However, even then, often times those fans will have hyphenated support – or, will choose the country of their ancestors first before supporting their country of residence or citizenship.  Here in the US, I know several people who are supporting Italy, or England, or Chile – as well as the US – because of their family’s background, or because they feel they have a tie (and, sometimes, a stronger tie) to those countries than they do the US.

As a Canadian (FIFA ranked #110 for the men’s team), the World Cup is but a pipe dream.  We didn’t qualify, didn’t even come close, so I find that I have leaned on the perception of my own heritage and identity to choose my “teams.” As such, I am supporting the following three squads:

England – My mother is English (though she’s spent almost all of her life in Canada) and I have many personal and professional ties to the country. Furthermore, there’s a weird colonial attachment I have to England.  So, my attachment is part blood, part identity, I suppose.

USA – I have had to reconcile my support of the “Eagles” with my national identity.  As a Canadian, I’m not really supposed to support the US. Yes, our nations are closely related, we are very similar culturally, etc, etc.  But, that’s kind of the point.  An oft used analogy is that the US is Canada’s big brother and, that as Canadians, we’ve had a hard time forging our own identity.  I recall that one US Ambassador to Canada quite astutely observed that the worst thing an American could say to a Canadian is “You’re just like us.” While the American sees that as a compliment, the Canadian sees that as a rejection of anything that is distinctive about the country and it’s identity.

So, why am I supporting the US?  Three reasons – first, my son is American.  Even though he’s two and has no idea what the World Cup is (though, as the picture below can attest, he does like to try and push a gigantic World Cup soccer ball through the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s head office in Toronto).  So, blood is a big part of it.  Secondly, having worked in the US for over five years now, I know that it is far more than the caricature that many Canadians (and others) ascribe to it.  Yes, it is strange and downright scary here at times, particularly culturally, but there is still so much good here that it’s hard not to really, really grow to like it. And, finally, I like underdogs – and the US team certainly is one at this tournament.

ImageBelgium – I don’t have any Belgian heritage, at least in terms of blood, but I spend a great deal of time there each year professionally and I really have fallen in love with the country.  And, well, there’s a nationalism component to it as well, given the role of Canada in defending Belgium in the First World War.

Point is, I suppose, that heritage does play a role in how we view the World Cup – and, really, I can’t think of many other competitions where we are so flexible with how we affix our identity. Even when we choose to root against another team, we often do because of our adopted heritages, claiming distant conflicts, slights, and injuries as our own (as an English supporter, I still root against Argentina at every opportunitiy – even though I have no direct attachment to the Falklands War). As such, there is a strange kind of existential heritage in World Cup fandom that makes it, from my perspective, a unique form of sport heritage.

The City or the Tiger? Heritage and Team Nicknames

For a great many reasons, names are strongly linked to heritage.  Whether it is our own individual names – which may carry the legacies of family or faith – the names of streets, of places, of communities, of states and regions and so on, the benefits (or burdens) of heritage are often front and centre.

The relationship between names and sporting heritage is strong as well.  Often times, a stadium or venue is linked to heritage – or, over time, acquires a heritage.  Perhaps in recent years, with widespread use of naming rights, we have become somewhat used to the de-linking of sport heritage and names – though, the transition from a heritage name to a corporate name can sometimes inspire resistance, as was the case with the re-naming of St. James’ Park in Newcastle.  Team nicknames as well are part and parcel of heritage – sometimes expressly linked to the history and culture of a region (my hometown Edmonton Oilers were named in honour of the role of oil in the province’s history), while other times the nicknames have a lengthy history and, as such, are considered traditional.

It is with this in mind that the story about the name change of Hull City FC to Hull City “Tigers” – and the debate that ensued – caught my attention.  From what I understand, the name “Tigers” has been the informal nickname of the club for some time because of the colour pattern of their uniforms – much like Newcastle has been called the “Magpies” because of the black and white stripes of the jerseys – but that the name was never institutionalized.  As such, there is a heritage to the “tigers” nickname – it wasn’t picked at random, after all – but that the official team name was always Hull City or (as the linked article explains) simply “City.”

What I find interesting is why the owner and his marketing team have decided to formalize the “tigers” nickname.  Simply put, he is banking that the “tigers” will resonate globally, that it helps to separate Hull from its EPL rivals in a global marketplace, and that tigers in other markets – such as India – are more culturally relevant.  To quote from the article:

Nearly half of the clubs in the Premier League are called City or United, but you probably think of Manchester City or Manchester United if you’re outside England and hear those names.  It’s a global game now, with a pretty saturated market and plenty of competition….For example, India has one of the biggest populations in the world, with a huge appetite for sport and a growing interest in football. A teenager on the streets of Mumbai might not know the difference between, say, Newcastle, Aston Villa and Hull. But he knows the word tiger, which has really positive connotations in India – as proud, noble, aggressive and strong.”

What is fascinating about this is how the team’s heritage is seen as both a global marketing opportunity and a burden.  On the one hand, the fact that the club supporters have informally used the “tigers” nickname for many is a benefit that may resonate globally and separate the club from its rivals.  Essentially, it is formalizing and institutionalizing an informal heritage that has existed for years. On the other hand, the team’s “proper” name – which, too, has a long history and heritage – was seen as too local and too common and, as such, burdened the club internationally.

I would suggest – though I don’t know this for certain – that an animal nickname, such as tigers, perhaps too closely resembles American sport or other franchise sports (such as the IPL) and lacks a certain authenticity, as well as the public trust/connection to community that is traditionally view as part of English football. Perhaps this is part of the local resistance to the name change?

It seems that the name change is formality at this point – though, the article does warn that a re-branding that discards local traditional heritages in order to reach broader markets may not be entirely successful, as has thus far been the case with Cardiff’s uniform changes.  It will be interesting to see if Hull’s name change has any long-term consequences, or if fans will embrace this global gambit both at home and abroad.  

The Christmas Truce

The Christmas truce was a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, during World War I. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides—as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units—independently ventured into “no man’s land”, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of soccer with one another.

The truce is often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of modern history. It was not ubiquitous; in some regions of the front, fighting continued throughout the day, while in others, little more than an arrangement to recover bodies was made. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting such fraternization. In 1916, after the unprecedentedly bloody battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the beginning of widespread poison gas use, soldiers on both sides increasingly viewed the other side as less than human, and no more Christmas truces were sought.”

David Lowenthal reminds us that heritage is often about faith – particularly a faith in a past that could have, or should have, existed.  In recent years, the Christmas Truce of 1914 – which included, among other activities, football/soccer matches between rival combatants on Christmas Day – has become one of the most symbolic moments in the history of human conflict.  Of course, historically the Truce was little more than a blip – and probably did not have much strategic importance in the long run.  However, the Truce reminds us that even in the most bloody of conflicts there remains the possibility of recognizing the humanity of the other, and maybe that something like Christmas – and what it represents – can inspire a peace, if only temporarily.  



A Brief Note on Sports, Holidays, Television, and Traditions

As we enter the Thanksgiving holidays here in the US, I got to thinking about how certain sports or sporting events are associated with holidays and how watching these games – or even having them on in the background – is a traditional part of holiday festivities.

Of course, Thanksgiving in the US means a slate of NFL football games, and having the TV tuned to whichever game(s) might be on is as integral a part of Thanksgiving as having yams and turkey to eat. Here at Clemson, the Thanksgiving weekend seems to always be when the rivalry game between our Tigers the the University of South Carolina Gamecocks takes place, though the TV tradition doesn’t seem to be as strong as the Thursday NFL games – however, in terms of college football, the many bowl games (and, in particular, the Rose Bowl) on New Years Day tends to be traditional television viewing.  The NHL is trying to start a Thanksgiving/television tradition with a game on Friday afternoon of the weekend, though it remains to be seen whether this “tradition” takes hold. I seem to recall that Boxing Day (December 26) in the UK is strongly associated with going to football or rugby matches – though, I don’t know to what extent television plays a role in that tradition.  Being from Canada, the World Junior Hockey Championships are synonymous with the Christmas holidays, as I can recall many Christmas mornings having a Team Canada game on in the background from Helsinki or Riga or Moscow as we opened presents from under the tree.

It seems that many of these sport/television traditions are during the winter months, and perhaps are not the focus of attention either – as I say they are often part of the background but, I would suggest, they would be noticeable by their absence.  It would be kind of strange not having football on in the background at a Thanksgiving Day feast.

In any event, I am wondering what other sporting events might be considered traditional and associated with both watching the game on television – perhaps with family and friends – and particular holidays?

EDIT: Of course, I completely forgot about all of the NBA games on Christmas Day and the NHL’s Winter Classic outdoor game on New Years Day.