An exemplary collection that captures the essence and intricacies of Nordic football culture

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Payam Ansari
Department of Sport and Event Management
Bournemouth University Business School


Mihaly Szerovay, Arto Nevala & Hannu Itkonen (eds.)
Football in the Nordic Countries: Practices, Equality and Influence
248 pages, hardcover
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2023 (Critical Research in Football)
ISBN 978-1-032-24913-1

Football culture is colourful, varied, and unique, offering a vivid tapestry of experiences across the globe. The evolution of football and its cultural significance in each country provides an insightful lens through which to examine the intricate and delicate weave of cultural, political, and economic factors influencing societies and, conversely, how societies shape the culture around a sport. Over the years, I have explored numerous texts on football from a global perspective. While the sport, particularly men’s football, has been extensively researched – unveiling a variety of issues, strengths, and challenges – the collection Football in the Nordic Countries: Practices, Equality, and Influence, edited by Mihaly Szerovay, Arto Nevala, and Hannu Itkonen, provided a refreshingly unique perspective. This anthology stands out due to its comprehensive comparative analysis of football cultures, systems, and traditions within the Nordic nations – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway. Each country, though seemingly similar, exhibits distinct characteristics. Compiled by 31 authors, this collection of 16 chapters offers a rich, multifaceted exploration of football on national, “glocal”, and global levels. From a social science perspective, it delivers a unique blend of scholarly insights and practical implications, adding depth to our understanding of football’s role within these diverse societies.

The book thoughtfully categorises its comprehensive studies into two main parts, each offering deep insights into different facets of football in the Nordic countries. Part I focuses on the dynamic changes within the region, including studies that explore tradition and transformation, and the increase in participation. It delves into discussions around the evolution from amateurism to professionalism, alongside the modernisation and commercialisation of the sport. This section not only traces the historical trajectory but also examines how these changes impact current practices.

Part II shifts the perspective to a thematic analysis, where the narrative is woven around three central themes: the ongoing professionalisation and changing practices within the sport; issues of equality and gender; and the cultural aspects concerning supporters, audiences, and broader football culture. Across these themes, spread over 10 chapters, the authors provide detailed analyses for each of the five countries. This section not only offers a vivid picture of how the Nordic football culture has evolved but also critically assesses the key factors shaping its current state, emphasising both the similarities and distinctions among the countries.

The renowned welfare model of these nations significantly influences their sports culture and organisational roles and responsibilities, providing a unique context for examining a sport that has seen substantial growth in both popularity and success in the region.

Through these explorations, the book serves as more than a mere aggregation of facts; it is a critical tool for understanding the complex interplay between cultural shifts and sporting practices, providing readers with valuable insights into the socio-political underpinnings of football in the Nordic context.

The choice of Nordic countries as the focus of this compilation is particularly intriguing and offers rich insights through the various perspectives detailed in the book. The renowned welfare model of these nations significantly influences their sports culture and organisational roles and responsibilities, providing a unique context for examining a sport that has seen substantial growth in both popularity and success in the region. This backdrop, coupled with the designation of these countries as some of the “happiest” in the world, sets an interesting stage for social and cultural observations. The studies effectively highlight key themes such as equality, which is a central political and educational principle across these nations, robust civil society traditions, and a strong public administration for sports in all five countries. These elements contribute to a comprehensive understanding of how sport functions within larger societal frameworks and its impacts on community and national identities.

Furthermore, the global influence of Nordic football’s success is a complex and far-reaching phenomenon. The progressive stance of football organisations and representatives from the region on a variety of issues, from critiquing the Qatar World Cup to advancing gender equality and committing to sustainability, positions the Nordic countries, as noted by the editors, as the “conscience” of the football world. This designation highlights their pivotal role in shaping global football ethics and practices, marking them as exemplary leaders in the sports world.

The book excels in illustrating that the Nordic countries, despite sharing certain cultural and societal traits, are far from monolithic. It effectively draws out the differences among them, particularly in the varying popularity of football, as well as disparities in participation, professionalisation, and commercialisation. These distinctions are critical, as they highlight the diverse ways in which football has integrated into the fabric of each nation. Moreover, the blend of historical and thematic studies offers a comprehensive view of football across the region, but it also provides ample opportunity for readers with specific interests to delve deeper into particular topics and themes. This dual approach ensures that this collection caters both to those seeking an overarching understanding and to those who wish to explore in greater detail the unique aspects of football in each Nordic country. This structure enriches the reader’s experience, allowing for both broad and focused explorations of the sport within this distinct geographical and cultural context.

Iceland’s Alexandra Johannsdottir (15) heads the ball against the Czech Republic during the She Believes Cup soccer match Feb. 20, 2022, in Carson, CA. (Shutterstock/Ringo Chiu)

Of course, a project as ambitious as this naturally comes with its limitations, which the editors have thoughtfully acknowledged. A primary concern is the traditional approach within social science to football, especially pertinent to women’s football – a perspective with which I personally align. Although the chapters on equality and gender do address critical issues in women’s football, such as participation, barriers, and professionalisation, I assert that women’s football should be studied, discussed, and viewed as an integral part of football overall, rather than being marginalised by separate treatment on topics that are universally applicable across the sport. The study of gender in women’s football is undoubtedly important and is part of the conventional approach, but the growth and meaningful evolution of women’s football are deeply reliant on its complete integration into the broader football culture. This inclusion is crucial, not merely as an extension or an afterthought but as a fundamental component of what football embodies. Adopting such a holistic approach could significantly enhance the recognition and development of women’s football, moving it beyond existing constraints and towards an equal footing within the sport.

Among all the chapters, which were both insightful and a pleasure to read, I found some of the suggestions and calls for further research particularly compelling and necessary. As a women’s football researcher, certain chapters resonated with me more than others, aligning closely with my own findings in the field. For instance, Vehviläinen and colleagues, in Chapter 10, highlight the struggle for new participants in women’s and girls’ football, exacerbated by the constant emergence of new sports and forms of physical activity. This struggle extends beyond participation to visibility and publicity, as men’s football is often organised and broadcast during prime times when TV audiences are most likely to watch sports. Chapter 16, written by Dias, effectively underscores the importance of fan engagement in creating fan identity, particularly among immigrants. I particularly appreciated the suggestion by Bennike and colleagues in Chapter 1. They advocate for further research on the motives and barriers faced by self-organised football players, questioning the reasons and methods behind their self-organisation. This is a topic we have recently begun investigating at Bournemouth University, focusing specifically on women’s football.

Overall, Football in the Nordic Countries: Practices, Equality, and Influence is an exemplary collection that captures the essence and intricacies of Nordic football culture. Its detailed examination of the sport through the lenses of cultural, political, and economic factors offers essential insights not only for scholars and practitioners but for any reader interested in the interplay between sport and society. This book not only educates but also inspires further exploration and discussion, making it a valuable addition to the field of sports sociology and a beacon for future research on football.

Copyright © Payam Ansari 2024

Table of Content

Introduction: Mapping Nordic Countries and Football
Mihaly Szerovay, Arto Nevala and Hannu Itkonen

Part I: Changing Football in the Nordic Countries

      1. Tradition and Transformation in Denmark
        Søren Bennike, Rasmus K. Storm, Karsten Elmose-Østerlund, Nikolaj Schelde and Laila Ottesen
      2. Growing Participation and Slow Professionalisation in Finland
        Arto Nevala, Hannu Itkonen and Mihaly Szerovay
      3. Preserving the Balance between Amateurism and Professionalism in Iceland
        Vidar Halldorsson and Omar Johannsson
      4. Inclusion, Exclusion and Modernisation in Norway
        Arve Hjelseth, Bente Ovedie Skogvang, Frode Telseth and Pål Augestad
      5. Between Grassroots Democracy and Professional Commercialism in Sweden
        Robert Svensson, Daniel Alsarve and Daniel Svensson

Part II: Specific Issues and Themes

Professionalisation and Changing Practices

      1. Football Companies in Sweden and their Democratic Framework
        Björn Horgby and Christer Ericsson
      2. The Professionalisation of Finnish Football from the 1970s to 2000s: From Amateurs to Professionals
        Jouni Lavikainen
      3. The Professionalisation of Youth Football in Norway: Implications for the “Sport for All” Ideal?
        Anders Belling, Frode Telseth and Pål Augestad
      4. Football Fitness: More of the Same, or a Path-Breaking Concept?
        Søren Bennike, Morten B. Randers, Peter Krustrup and Laila Ottesen 

Equality and Gender

      1. Five Decades of Women’s Football in Finland
        Hanna Vehviläinen, Hannu Itkonen, Mihaly Szerovay and Arto Nevala
      2. Breaking Barriers in Norwegian Women’s Football
        Bente Ovedie Skogvang
      3. Women’s Football in Iceland: Don’t Wait for Change, Just Do It
        Daði Rafnsson and Hafrún Kristjánsdóttir

Supporters, Audiences and Culture

      1. Historical Rivalries in Swedish Club Football
        Torbjörn Andersson
      2. The Development of Supporter Cultures in Norwegian Football Since 1990
        Arve Hjelseth and Hans K. Hognestad
      3. Nordic Spectator Studies: The Literature on Attendance and Satisfaction at Professional Football Matches
        Morten Kringstad, Tor Georg Jakobsen and Rasmus K. Storm
      4. Ethnicity and Aesthetics in Swedish Football: Playing Like a Swede, Fighting Like a Kurd
        Tiago Duarte Dias
      5. Conclusion: Similarities, Differences and Future Research in Football in the Nordic Countries
        Hannu Itkonen, Mihaly Szerovay and Arto Nevala
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