A history of football fandom as vernacular religion


Jacob Kimvall
Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design, Stockholm

Andy Brassell
Football Murals: A celebration of soccer’s greatest street art
176 pages, hardcover, ill
London: Bloomsbury 2022
ISBN 978-1-3994-0280-4

The title of this book – Football Murals: A celebration of soccer’s greatest street art – is at the same time appropriate and deceptive. It is to the best of my knowledge the first collection of contemporary urban murals that are dedicated to football. The book demonstrates in a convincing manner that this is a widespread phenomenon, and one that deserves to be taken into serious consideration. So why is it then deceptive? I’ll return to that in a while.

First, I’d like to provide a disclaimer: the reviewer of this book, yours truly, is close to illiterate when it comes to sports. And even if football is a game that I’m at least slightly familiar with, I know very little about contemporary club football which is the primary context of the book. I’m reading – and reviewing – the book as an art historian focused on subcultural graffiti and street art, the artistic traditions within which the football murals are primarily if not solely produced. I have come across numerous examples of football related graffiti and, occasionally street art, but only a few times taken it into serious consideration.[1]

The book is on the other hand passionately written from within football fandom. This emic position is evident throughout the book – and the reader is primarily jointly addressed, together with the author, through the pronouns ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’. The distance-free ‘emic’ position is not a problem in itself; as an outsider I appreciate the opportunity to see football culture from a passionate and knowledgeable insider perspective.

The position of a passionate football fan also informs what I see as the main thesis of the book: that football murals “can speak for us when we’re still looking for the words to express that unconditional commitment and that shared understanding we have for our teams and their history, including the iconic figures […] that have represented them and, by extension, us.”

Neither the biographical nor the thematic chapters go deeper into the murals themselves, the artists behind them, or their more specific function in the cult of football, which is a pity.

This thesis – that the iconic players represent both their club and the supporters, and that the images express what the supporters can’t verbalize – also has certain implications regarding the content of the book. Here is my first objection to the title. The depicted murals are almost exclusively portraits of football idols, and it seems as if the selection of murals is based on the significance of portrayed players, rather than the artistic merit, or the cultural significance, of the actual artwork. In this sense it’s not primarily a celebration of soccer’s greatest street art, but rather a book on street art’s celebration of the greatest soccer players – and what they stand for.

This focus on the most iconic and celebrated figures within football, and their role as representations, also informs the overall structure of the book. It contains 25 short chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue, and no less than 14 of these chapters are biographical, in the sense that they are named after and focused on describing the specific players’ (12 male and 2 female) professional history, cultural significance and status. The remaining 11 chapters delves into different specific aspects of football culture, such as political engagement, local community pride, and the clash between club fandom and contemporary professional football known through what in the cultural context must be seen as a euphemism: “transfer” (when a player leaves one club for another).

The descriptions of football culture are passionate, insightful, detailed, and nuanced. The author is skillful in finding illustrative anecdotes, that telling, specific detail that explains a larger process or aspect of the international development of football, for example in the chapters on how players deal with homophobia, misogyny, and racism (“The Good Fight” and “Fifty Years of Hurt”).

Quartieri Spagnoli, Naples, and football: An indissoluble connection. Maradona, March 25, 2023. (Shutterstock/Paky Cassano)

Unfortunately, the same passion and detail are lacking in the descriptions of the actual murals. This is my second objection to the title: a striking feature of the book – on football murals – is the author’s relatively low explicit interest in the actual murals themselves.

Each depicted mural is indeed presented with a story, albeit very brief, through a caption that provides relevant information on location and motif, and basic insights into the significance in the specific context. The captions sometimes attribute the artist and only rarely dates the work, nor states when it’s documented. And while the chapters of the book are highly interesting and provides insights into the wider cultural context of the specific depicted murals, they only give hints to the significance of the pictures. Neither the biographical nor the thematic chapters go deeper into the murals themselves, the artists behind them, or their more specific function in the cult of football, which is a pity. In this sense it’s rather a celebration of soccer players illustrated with street art murals.

I know that I read the book as an art historian, but I’m not asking for a book that necessarily provide deep insights into the artistic production or its contexts, but I’d claim that the book – no matter what title you’d give it – would have gained from a deeper interest in the specifics of the material visuality evident in the actual pictures.

I am also aware that the book’s not an academic thesis, and I’m not asking for another type of book. I just wish that the author would have spent nearly as much time and energy trying to understand the images as he spends on explaining football culture. Perhaps at least one of the thematic chapters could have focused on the circumstances of production of the murals, its economics, or the aesthetic choices. For example, by looking at the relationship between the artists, the clubs, and the fans. Are the artists passionate fans themselves, or rather professional artisans possibly working for different clubs? And could an artist make ‘a transfer’, the same way as a player, and move between clubs? Are the murals commissioned by the clubs, or by groups of fans, or perhaps initiated by the artists themselves? I assume that questions such as these can’t be answered generally but would need to be asked in the specific contexts, and then would yield different answers – just as specific as the different histories of the iconic players.

So, Football Murals: A celebration of soccer’s greatest street art is not a book about football’s best murals; nor is it a book about the murals or their creators; occasionally it’s about the role of street art murals in the cult of contemporary football. But to an even greater extent, the book uses the murals as an excuse for telling a story of contemporary football.With this said, I’d also say that there are much worse ways to use murals, and the story told is a fascinating and passionate history of football fandom as vernacular religion and cult. The labor of identifying murals dedicated to football as a specific phenomenon and collecting them in a book is an achievement. The labor of contextualizing and evaluating the actual murals, and interpreting them are still up for grabs.

Copyright © Jacob Kimvall 2023

[1] Hannerz, E., and Kimvall, J. 2019. “’Keep Fighting Malmö’. Graffiti and the Negotiations of Interest and Control at Open Walls”. In Creating the City: Identity, Memory and Participation, Conference proceedings, edited by P. Brunnström and R. Claesson, 395–420. Malmö: Malmö University

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