The Role and Function of Tifos in the Swedish Football Supporter Culture

Sara Karlén
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


This article is an introduction to my PhD project called ‘Tifo within the Swedish Football Supporter Culture’. Tifos are the visual choreographies that supporters perform at the stands before the football game starts. Often, material such as big paintings, flags, confetti, paper sheets, and pyrotechnics are used. In this study, I will investigate the tifo culture in Allsvenskan, the top tier of the Swedish football league system for men, and the supporters behind it. The project is a continuation of my master’s thesis, which will be referenced in the text.

Introduction

From 1990 to 2019 (before the pandemic), the average attendance of Allsvenskan has doubled. In 1990, the average was around 4,500 spectators, but in 2019 it was around 9,100 (European Football Statistics, 2020). Moreover, Sweden has had one of the largest percentual increases in attendance of all European countries during the 2010s: from an average of 6,518 spectators in 2010 to 9,127 in 2016 (Nyberg, 2018). During the season of 2019, Allsvenskan gathered over 2 million spectators in total during the games (Svensk Elitfotboll, 2019).

In the mid-1990s, tifos started to become an established element in the Swedish supporter culture (Andersson & Radmann, 1998; Hagström et al., 2010). Today, tifos are a fundamental part of the Swedish supporter culture (Karlén, 2020). The increase in the number of Allsvenskan attendees and  tifos coincides. At the same time, based on UEFA’s rankings of football leagues, Allsvenskan’s ranking has become lower compared to other countries in Europe. In 1995, the Allsvenskan was ranked as number 14 in Europe (Andersson, 2016:478). Today, 2021/2022, Allsvenskan is ranked as number 23 (UEFA, 2022). Thus, although the quality of the football games in Allsvenskan might be mediocre compared to other leagues in Europe, the supporter and tifo culture in Sweden has expanded (Montague, 2020).

Photo © Emelie Hübner.

The Swedish football supporters’ expressions at the stadiums have been influenced by the singing in England and the tifos in Southern Europe and South America. In the beginning of the 1990s, television channels in Sweden started showing football games from the Italian Serie A. Shortly after, the visual choreographies started to inspire the supporters in Allsvenskan (Andersson & Radmann, 1998; Hagström et al., 2010). It is difficult to determine the first tifo in Sweden, but according to Hagström et al. (2010:137), the first relevant one was a tifo performed by the supporters of Hammarby IF (from Stockholm) in a game against IFK Norrköping, played the 1 May 1995. Nowadays, almost all supporters of Allsvenskan teams have a specific group that creates tifos – a so called tifo group. The tifo group creates tifos voluntarily and finances it though collections from other supporters. Those who participate in tifo groups are mainly males between the ages of 15 and 30, although girls and women are (usually) welcome. Tifo groups from different teams compete to create the most creative, ingenious, and stylish tifo (Karlén, 2020).

In earlier studies or reports of football fans, the three most mentioned groups in the supporter landscape are the official supporter organisations, ultras, and firms. The official supporter organizations are open to all fans, and are organized as associations. The fans become members of the association, and a board is guiding it. For example, the board often organizes travels to awaygames (SOU 2012:23). Ultras are those who attend both home and away games, are loud and visible at the stands, see themselves as an independent and authentic group, and break the law by using pyrotechnics and in some cases violence (Herd, 2018; SOU 2012:23). The firms consist of hooligans, mainly groups of men who fights against other group of men dedicated to other teams (Radmann, 2013).

While describing tifos, researcher have mainly mentioned them being organized by ultras (see Doige et al., 2020; Herd, 2018). In Sweden, the context of this study, tifo groups consist of mixed supporters, both ultras and regular supporters (Karlén, 2020), which might differ from other countries in Europe and therefore needs to be investigated (Doige et al., 2020). Further, since the supporter culture in Sweden has become a big subculture, it is important to study its heterogeneity.

Ultras are those who attend both home and away games, are loud and visible at the stands, see themselves as an independent and authentic group, and break the law by using pyrotechnics and in some cases violence.

Since the emergence of football in Sweden in the late nineteenth century, there has been a debate about what constitutes good and bad supporter culture (Andersson, 2002). Lately, the discussion has revolved around whether ultras are good or bad for Swedish supporter culture, mainly in relation to pyrotechnics. One main question has been how clubs and law enforcement should handle the use of illegal pyrotechnics (SOU 2012:23). Tifos are often described as something that creates an atmosphere; this could also include the use of pyrotechnics that are illegal in Sweden. Ultras are the main supporter groups that use pyrotechnics to affirm their autonomy and culture (Herd, 2018). In some cases, pyrotechnics are a part of tifos; in other cases, they are a form of expression by ultra groups. Therefore, it can be difficult to separate them (Karlén, 2020).

As previously mentioned, the quality of the Allsvenskan football league has seemingly deteriorated, whereas the atmosphere during the football games – including tifos – and attendance at the football games have simultaneously improved. The question is, how can this phenomenon be explained? One possible theoretical framework that could help us understand this situation is based on the society of singularities theory by the cultural sociologist Andreas Reckwitz.

According to Reckwitz (2020), Western society has transformed its capitalist system from industrial to cultural. Within the industrial societies of the early 1900’s, mass-production produced standardized products, cities, subjects, and organizations that tended to look all the same and lack specificity. Now, in late modernity, the logic has shifted from the industrial thinking of the general to the particular. Since many people started to acquire more products and have higher standards, the desire for the unique and exclusive has developed, for example, unique objects, experiences, individuals, events, and communities that all claim authenticity. The products in the cultural capitalist system that acquire value, or becomes ‘valourized’, are created through connotations and appealing aesthetics. Reckwitz (2020) calls these unique, exclusive connotations and appealing aesthetics singularities. These singularities also include social interactions and the individuals’ desires to be particular or be a part of a particular community. Based on what the empirical material shows, this perspective could later be useful to analyse how tifos are utilized to create something particular in a general (and mediocre) football game in the Allsvenskan.

Photo © Emelie Hübner.

Internationally, academic interests in football fans and hooligans started in the 1960s. In Sweden, the interests increased during the 1990s (Radmann, 2013). The groups that have been investigated include male and female fans, ultras, and hooligans, and the perspectives that have been taken include history, violence, masculinity and gender (Andersson & Radmann, 1998; Herd, 2018; Radmann, 2013; Radmann & Hedenborg, 2018). Research about tifo in Sweden, however, is limited. The practice was briefly investigated in the 1990s (when it started to appear in Sweden) as part of the general supporter culture (see Andersson & Radmann, 1998), and lately it has been studied as a part of creating history within football (see Herd, 2018). Following earlier studies and perspective about supporters and tifo, my study will contribute with a deeper empirical investigation on tifo. Further, the study will bring an aesthetical as well as a sociological and cultural perspective to studying and understanding football fans.

The aim of this study is to explore how Swedish football supporters add value to football games by producing creative expressions through visual choreographies, namely tifos. Accordingly, the guiding themes for the study are what meaning tifos have within the Swedish supporter culture, and that the supporter that are creating tifos make meaning of their activity.

Introducing Reckwits’ (2020) theory of singularities in this context will enrich the analysis and understanding of the phenomenon under study.

Methodology

To investigate and understand a specific social and cultural group of people, the ethnographic method is useful (Coffey, 2018). This study will investigate a group within the Swedish supporter culture, namely the group that creates, produces, and performs tifos. Using ethnographic methods allows the researcher to combine a rich variation of theoretical and methodological frameworks (Coffey, 2018). Since this study is in its beginning stages, the variation in empirical material and theoretical perspectives could guide the research in new directions. Currently, the research plan involves following tifo groups of four different teams. The teams represent different geographical locations and club sizes. The main data collection methods will be focus group interviews, individual interviews, and observations.

Focus group interviews

The focus group interviews will include supporters from the same tifo group and should consist of 4–5 supporters. To get deeper conversations and reflections on any emerging themes, the focus group interviews will be held with the same group several times.

Individual interviews

Individual interviews will compliment data collection by allowing the discussion of topics that might be too sensitive for a focus group. Further, such interviews could include supporters with a specific knowledge within the field, for example, those who can provide historical perspectives.

Observations

Observation of tifo groups both creating and performing tifos will be undertaken. This will be done to see and understand how these groups plan and perform the tifos and observe the output of their work.

Relevance

This study will produce new empirical knowledge about different kinds football fans and supporters. Academically, the study will reveal new theoretical perspectives on how to categorize and analyse fans could, as Doige et al. (2020) suggest. Introducing Reckwits’ (2020) theory of singularities in this context will enrich the analysis and understanding of the phenomenon under study. Outside of academia, the study will provide better knowledge for actors that work with football, for example football clubs, event organizers, law enforcement, and supporters and fans could use the knowledge to improve their work and collaborations.

Photo © Emelie Hübner

References

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