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Beyond the Jersey

From Oakland to Dortmund, unraveling the true meaning of loving a sports team.
nica%2A%2C+CC+BY-SA+2.0+%2C+via+Wikimedia+Commons
nica*, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The concept of ‘support’ carries different meanings across different cultures. This difference is evident when comparing the world of European and South American soccer to the American sports scene. Recently, the Oakland Athletics have decided to uproot from their long-standing home in Oakland and go to Las Vegas. This impending move is seemingly business as usual in American sports and perfectly highlights a fundamental difference in the sports culture between the United States and other parts of the world​​.

Similarly, our very own Sacramento Kings nearly relocated to Seattle a few years back and while people were upset, it wasn’t a life-or-death situation. Imagine the chaos caused if a proposal were made to relocate a team like Borussia Dortmund out of Dortmund or Corinthians out of São Paulo. It would be unfathomable; protests akin to a “war” would definitely break, and blood would certainly be shed.

Photo by Waldemar on Unsplash

This contrast brings us to the following statement: in the United States, people like sports teams; they don’t necessarily love them. Not in the way fans in other parts of the world do. American sports culture, with its franchise-based system, allows for the possibility of teams relocating based on various factors, including market size, financial considerations, and stadium deals. This system, while practical in a business sense, doesn’t foster the same level of deep-rooted support seen in other parts of the globe.

Photo by Valentin B. Kremer on Unsplash

For most of the world, a football club is often a central pillar of a community’s identity, bathed in history and tradition. Supporting a team isn’t just a pastime; it’s a part of one’s cultural and social identity. This intense connection stems from various factors, including the club’s historical significance, community ties, and the escape it offers from daily hardships, especially in economically challenged areas. Football, for many, is an escape from reality, a source of pride, and a beacon of hope in difficult times.

Martins, Tito, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The structure of leagues in places like Europe and South America, featuring promotion and relegation, adds to the intensity. Every match matters and the stakes are high, fostering a sense of urgency and passion among the fans. This contrasts with American sports, where a team’s poor performance might result in a lower ranking or missing the playoffs, but not the existential threat of relegation.

In such a scenario, saying that an American ‘supports’ a team like Liverpool or Real Madrid might be a misnomer. What they mean is they like the team. To truly support a team, in the way fans in South America, Africa, or Europe do, is to live for it, and in extreme cases, even die for it. This is not hyperbole. The history of football is riddled with incidents of fan violence and extreme measures taken by supporters in the name of their teams.

George Mirgiannis, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

From the tragic Heysel Stadium Disaster in 1985, which saw 39 Juventus fans lose their lives due to clashes with Liverpool supporters, to the Port Said Stadium Riot in Egypt in 2012 that resulted in 74 deaths, the examples are numerous and somber​​​​. In Brazil, the ‘Torcidas Organizadas’ of major clubs, sometimes originating from the favelas, have been involved in severe clashes, leading to injuries and fatalities​​. These incidents, though extreme, reflect the depth of passion and the lengths to which some supporters will go for their teams.

Photo by Gurdain Bharj on Unsplash

This cultural difference extends to the match-day experience. In the United States, it’s not uncommon to see away fans seated amongst home fans, a scenario nearly impossible in countries where football fanaticism reaches its zenith. In Brazil, for instance, local derbies often mandate matches to be a single-team fan affair for safety reasons. 

Supporting a team in most parts of the world is about tradition, colored by historic triumphs and heartbreaks, and often interwoven with the socio-political state of its environment. The support for these teams is about more than mere fandom; it’s an integral part of an individual’s identity, often passed down through generations.

Anderson Bueno Pereira, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The way sports teams are integrated into the lives of their supporters varies greatly across cultures. For an American fan to claim support for a team like Liverpool or Arsenal, it needs a redefinition of ‘support’ in the context of global football culture. 

Understanding and respecting these cultural nuances is key to appreciating the global landscape of sports fandom. While American fans certainly have their brand of loyalty and passion, the depth and intensity of support seen in football cultures around the world are of a different breed altogether, often intertwined with the very fabric of the community’s identity and existence.

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Nathan Azevedo Espindula, Editor and Chief
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