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Fan behavior and social role form the basis of studies on soccer

In the last half a century, studies on sport by the human sciences have transformed from a small niche to a structured and multidisciplinary field

Maurício Rummens / Fotoarena

In the early 1980s, when Heloisa Reis was starting her career as a soccer player at Guarani Futebol Clube in Campinas, her curiosity was piqued by a strange phenomenon. Every week, a mostly male crowd made the effort to attend the matches, but instead of cheering and supporting their team, they dedicated their time to hurling abuse and insults at the players.

As well as feeling insulted, she was intrigued: what impulse drives people to the stands on a Sunday not for the joy of the sport, but to attack the athletes? Now a physical education professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), the former player reports that this question is at the foundation of many of the studies she has carried out during her academic career. “The interviews I conducted for my PhD gave me a better understanding of the violence that marked my life and prevents so many girls and women from continuing to play.”

Reis’s experience illustrates how the British sport is a valuable field of research into social relationships in Brazil, where soccer is by far the country’s most popular sport. Played by amateurs and professionals nationwide, from informal dirt fields to stadiums that hold tens of thousands of spectators, soccer is everywhere, capable of bringing together crowds for colorful parties or violent clashes broadcast live on television and online.

“The basic question is whether soccer should be seen as a mirror or as a vector of society,” summarizes Bernardo Buarque de Hollanda, a historian from the Center for Research and Documentation of Contemporary History in Brazil at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (CPDOC-FGV). “The difference is that a mirror only reflects—it is a mechanical relationship. Soccer is also something that engenders society, it gives rise to social relations and must be examined through this prism.”

Despite being ingrained in Brazilian culture, soccer only began to be studied regularly in the human sciences from the late 1970s onwards, write Sérgio Settani Giglio, head of UNICAMP’s Sport and Humanities Research Group, and economist Marcelo Weishaupt Proni of the same university in the introduction to their book O futebol nas ciências humanas no Brasil (Soccer in the human sciences in Brazil; Editora Unicamp, 2020). Until then, Brazil’s favorite sport was considered a minor topic, addressed only by journalists, such as Mário Filho (1908–1966), author of O negro no futebol brasileiro (Black players in Brazilian soccer; Pongetti, 1947), and foreigners, such as German philosopher Anatol Rosenfeld (1912–1973), author of a series of articles gathered in Negro, futebol e macumba (Black people, soccer and macumba; Perspectiva, 2006).

Paulo Fridman / Corbis via Getty ImagesNeo Química Arena in Itaquera, São Paulo, months before hosting the opening match of the 2014 World CupPaulo Fridman / Corbis via Getty Images

A pioneering study on soccer was conducted at the same time that Heloisa Reis was playing her first amateur matches in Campinas. And although soccer was considered an almost exclusively male environment at the time, the researcher was a woman: anthropologist Simoni Lahud Guedes (1950–2019), who defended her dissertation “O futebol brasileiro – Instituição zero” (“Brazilian soccer: Institution zero”) at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro in 1977. Ludopédio publishing house has plans to publish the text posthumously.

The first generation of sociologists, anthropologists, and historians to look closely at the issue in Brazil emerged in Guedes’s wake. Notable works include the book História política do futebol brasileiro (The political history of Brazilian soccer; Brasiliense, 1981) by Joel Rufino dos Santos (1941–2015), the dissertation “Os genios da pelota: Um estudo do futebol como profissão” (“Geniuses with the ball: A study of soccer as a profession”), defended by Ricardo Benzaquen de Araújo (1952–2017) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in 1980, and the collections Universo do futebol: Esporte e sociedade brasileira (Soccer universe: Brazilian sport and society; Pinakotheke, 1982), organized by anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, and Futebol e cultura (Soccer and culture), organized by historians José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy and José Sebastião Witter.

“At that time in the 1980s, studies began to emphasize the specificity of soccer as a social phenomenon. Soccer is a source of regional and national identity, as an element of creativity,” says Felipe Paes Lopes, a philosopher from the University of Sorocaba (UNISO) who studies the social and political role of organized fan groups. “In his work, DaMatta seeks to understand how soccer allows Brazilians to experience democracy and social justice differently to other spheres of society, in which clientelistic relationships prevail.”

“Compared to those who came before us, who in the 1980s almost had to apologize for wanting to study this topic, we are in an unimaginable position. Our book reveals the maturation of this line of research in Brazil,” comments Giglio. “We gathered texts by around 50 authors who developed this field, formed research groups, and published intensively. And even then, we had to leave out a lot of people,” he says. The researcher is one of the founders of the nongovernmental organization Ludopédio Institute, which disseminates academic literature on soccer.

Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty ImagesFluminense fans at Maracanã Stadium in 2010 throw talcom powder as their team enters the field, in reference to rice powder. The cosmetic has been a symbol of the Rio de Janeiro–based team since 1914, when athlete Carlos Alberto was mocked by opposing fans for using it to lighten his skinTim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images

There was a significant expansion of research in the field in the 1990s. “Various theoretical approaches were tested, scientific analysis methodologies were applied, different interpretations gained support, and conferences created opportunities for new researchers. But academic output was still incipient,” wrote Giglio and Proni when presenting the book.

In the first decade of this century, funding for studies on the subject began to increase, especially after Brazil was named host of the 2014 World Cup and Rio de Janeiro as host of the 2016 Olympic Games, establishing what became known as the “sport decade.” The World Cup itself, which provoked protests in the streets and ultimately resulted in great disappointment for Brazilian fans, inspired new waves of research.

“The 2014 World Cup may have opened new doors for studies on Brazilian soccer in some respects, but not in others,” say the organizers of the book. “More than 30 years later, soccer is frequently debated at Brazilian universities, and no member of academia would dare say this is not a study topic to be taken seriously.”

It was not only in Brazil that it took time for soccer to consolidate itself as a field of study in the human sciences. The foreign reference most cited by Brazilian scholars on the subject is the so-called Leicester School, which developed from the 1970s onwards and whose biggest name is British sociologist Eric Dunning (1936–2019), author of books on fan behavior and violence in stadiums.

RobertoDuque / FolhapressPolice officers try to stop fans invading the field in Pacaembu during a Supercopa de Juniores game between Palmeiras and São Paulo in August 1995RobertoDuque / Folhapress

Early in his career, Dunning was supervised by German sociologist Norbert Elias (1897–1990), who saw stadiums as a space for collective catharsis, an escape from the routine and the controlled way of life of modern developed societies. “This catharsis explains the symbolic violence between fans, who insult each other during games. Reading Elias, I recognized that sensation of frustrations being released in the men who shouted at me when I played,” explains Reis.

Lopes associates the interest in soccer in the human sciences with social conflicts that occurred in Europe from the late 1960s onwards. Rising fan violence in the 1980s reinforced the trend. Fights between hooligans raised questions about the role of sport in society. The Hillsborough tragedy of 1989—when fans were trapped in an overcrowded stadium in Sheffield, England, causing the death of 97 people—was a watershed moment, showing that soccer needs effective public policies. To that end, the sport needed to be studied carefully.

The Taylor Report, issued the following year after an inquiry into the Hillsborough tragedy, recommended that stadiums only allow seated spectators, among other measures. As standing areas were removed, stadium capacities became smaller and ticket prices rose. The process coincided with a period during which the English soccer league was making efforts to modernize and increase revenue to compete with other major leagues in Spain and Germany. In 1992, the English Premier League was founded, which is now the most valuable in the world, contributing £7.6 billion to the UK economy per year, according to the consultancy Ernst & Young.

These reforms helped change the profile of the average fan attending matches, with more comfortable stadiums and higher ticket prices leading to crowd gentrification—a process in which spaces initially occupied by lower-income populations are taken over by higher-income groups. This contributed to the acceleration of another process that began in the 1980s: the expansion of soccer as a multi-billion-dollar market. At the same time, television networks began to regularly broadcast matches and team jerseys began to include the names of sponsors.

Liverpool Echo / Mirrorpix / Getty ImagesViolence during the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, a decade earlierLiverpool Echo / Mirrorpix / Getty Images

“The concern about violence and the drive towards gentrifying stadiums are inextricably linked. We just can’t be sure which came first in Brazil,” says Reis, who started working on her doctoral thesis in 1995, the same year as the “battle of Pacaembu,” a brawl between fans of the Palmeiras and São Paulo soccer teams that resulted in one death and more than 100 injuries. Events like this served as an incentive for universities to study fan behavior, looking for ways to prevent the symbolic violence of insults shouted from the stands from spilling over into physical aggression.

The UNICAMP professor argues that the problem of violence in soccer has multiple dimensions. For her, there is a mistaken association between hooligans and organized fan groups in Brazil. “These groups of men who go out looking for fights because they enjoy the feeling of being in danger can be part of the fan base or otherwise,” she explains.

That is why she believes solutions such as CCTV in stadiums are insufficient, because many groups meet, for example, on the streets before and after matches. Reis says the government needs to implement a policy that involves monitoring of violent groups and preventive policing, rather than a repressive approach. “Public policy must keep an eye on these groups and make it difficult for them to act. And if vigilance is not enough, the police must be able to intervene quickly,” she summarizes.

Reis was one of the researchers who helped create the National Commission to Prevent Violence for the Safety of Sporting Events, set up by Brazil’s federal government in 2004 and known as the Peace in Sport Commission. In 2006, the commission, headed by Marco Aurélio Klein, professor of sports marketing at FGV-SP, published the report “Preserving the spectacle, ensuring safety, and the right to citizenship,” which proposed various measures for preventing confrontations during soccer matches. That same year, Reis organized meetings between members of the Ministry of Sports and representatives of organized fan groups. One outcome of the process was the creation of the National Association of Organized Fan Groups (ANATORG). “ANATORG has played a key role in pacifying soccer-related violence in Brazil,” says Reis.

The most recent generation of researchers has generally accepted the theory that soccer is a vector of Brazilian social life, says Hollanda. This has led to a wave of studies on the social dynamics manifested in matches, especially among supporters. “Even after the sport decade ended, interest in studying the topic continued to grow. Today, we carry out a lot of research on gender, race, sexuality, and similar issues in soccer,” says the FGV researcher.

Alex Menendez / Getty ImagesMarta, the number 10 for Brazil’s national women’s team, gives instructions to her teammates during a match against Argentina at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida, 2021Alex Menendez / Getty Images

Clubs have also begun to recognize their social role and adopt policies to reinterpret their history. By way of example, Hollanda cites Esporte Clube Bahia, which has linked its three colors (blue, red, and white) to the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag, Associação Atlética Ponte Preta, which wants to be recognized as the first association to have accepted Black athletes, and Fluminense Futebol Clube, which is attempting to change its image of being an elitist club via a webseries based on a pioneering fan: Black capoeira practitioner Chico Guanabara.

These initiatives benefit from academic studies, such as those conducted by UFRJ sociologist José Jairo Vieira, author of the book As relações étnico-raciais e o futebol do Rio de Janeiro: Mitos, discriminação e mobilidade social (Ethno-racial relations and soccer in Rio de Janeiro: Myths, discrimination, and social mobility; Mauad, 2018). Vieira’s research sheds light on racist phenomena that have remained invisible or ignored for decades. In response to the 2014 World Cup and a string of cases of racist insults being thrown at players such as Tinga, Arouca, Aranha, and Márcio Chagas, Marcelo Carvalho created the Observatory of Racial Discrimination in Soccer, which produces annual reports on the situation faced in Brazilian stadiums. It recorded 158 cases of racism in 2021.

Clubs are also having to adapt to cultural and legislative changes that are expanding women’s soccer, which was banned in Brazil between 1941 and 1979. Participation in the Brazilian Soccer Management Modernization and Fiscal Responsibility Program (PROFUT) has since 2015 required clubs to invest in women’s teams, which has helped strengthen regional and national tournaments. Championships such as the women’s Copa Libertadores da América are broadcast on television and Brazil’s national team has already featured popular idols such as Marta and Formiga.

But the symbolic violence that Reis faced while playing for Guarani has not disappeared. The space for women in soccer remains limited, warns the UNICAMP professor. They are still a minority among fan groups and although there has been an increase in the last decade, activities aimed at women remain a second priority. Just like female players in the 1980s, female referees and assistants still suffer misogynistic verbal aggression today. Legislation designed to promote professional conditions for female players, such as Law No. 12.395/2011, an update of the Pelé Law that obligated clubs to register athletes over 20 years of age, is systematically violated, she laments.

However, Reis points out that the conditions faced by women have improved substantially both on the field and in the stands, despite occasional setbacks and ongoing gender-based violence in stadiums. “I live near the sea and it makes me so emotional to see so many little girls playing soccer at the beach, sometimes with their mother and father. For me, playing was a challenge and a struggle, but for them, it’s a perfectly normal passtime,” she says.