Football narratives anchored in the past

Birgitta Svensson
Professor of Ethnology, Stockholm University


Katarzyna Herd
“We can make new history here”: Rituals of producing history in Swedish football clubs
304 pages, paperback, ill.
Lund University: Lund 2018 (Lund Studies in Art and Cultural Sciences)
ISBN 978-91-88899-02-6

Katarzyna Herd’s thesis We can make new history here is a solid piece of work. To her, producing history proved to be productive in analyzing football as a specific field. The title of the thesis refers to something an MFF player said, and is intended to show the importance of history.History in elite male football, which is the theme of this thesis, she states as the tool, the process and the end product for both her theoretical toolbox and for the clubs in their rhetoric. She sees football as influential in shaping values and attitudes in Western cultures and believes that analyzing history production within this context can reveal something about how collective memory, emotions and performance influence individuals.

At the intersection of the research fields of history, ethnology and sport studies, she guides us through perspectives of change, fluidity and flexibility in the production of history. In focus is narratives from four Swedish football clubs: AIK, established 1891, and Djurgårdens IF, established a few months later, both Stockholm teams, Helsingborgs IF (HIF), established 1907, and Malmö FF (MFF), established 1910.  The main aim of this thesis is to show what the production of history means for the understanding of history.  Questions about historical narratives in the football context are asked in relation to how history is performed.

The theoretical frame around collective memory, as understood by Jan and Aleida Assman, using the terms cultural memory and communicative memory is crucial.  The concepts of collective, communicative, social and cultural memory are used throughout the thesis to trace approaches to the past. Using rites and rituals to transform communicative memory into cultural memory is important, and since Herd sees many magical qualities involved in the rituals and rites of football, this has come to play an important part of her analysis. A ritual consists of both emotions and cultural performance, which is why she uses Sara Ahmeds meaning of how feelings are framed and embodied in symbols. Magic needs rites and rituals to be performed, and not only does it depend on performance; even a story needs performance as a contextual meaning to become a narrative, and it needs a specific spatial-temporal setting. Materiality is of special importance in this study, since it connects the historical narratives to the performative history production, with the help of for instance scarfs and banners. History can be found in objects and through the human usage of objects.

History produces social value; as the fans say, the team is forever, meaning that the protagonists are replaceable and the club will continue regardless.

The narratives that Herd collected throughout her fieldwork are not just stories but used analytically as composed of different stories with different functions, they can also include materiality. She means that narratives have to be discussed together with terms like texts and intertextuality, as coined by the philosopher of language Julia Kristeva. Like Roland Barthes, Kristeva sees the meaning of the text not as something that actually resides in the text, but as something that is produced by the reader in relation to many other texts. Narrative elements make a story into a story and a myth into a myth. The concept ofmyth is very important in this study. It is a special form of narrative used in rituals. Roland Barthes calls it a type of speech chosen by history. Herd has conducted vast field work in shadowing, observing and becoming a witness to all the ceremonies, rites and activities performed in the 26 football matches that she has attended between 2014 and 2018. Additionally, she has done individual interviews with 43 persons and two focus groups among supporters, people working for the clubs, players, former players, security and police. The thesis also rests on a vast material from internet ethnography, photos, printed publications like newspapers, albums, club histories and novels.

Collective memory in material from the past

We learn about historical recycling when focus is on the meaning of age, memorabilia, materials from the past and collective memory. In football, genealogy narratives always start with the date of the establishment of the club, like founding myths. Herd argues that cultural capital based on old age allows clubs to contest each other and even mock rivals. Being older means having more traditions, history and prestige. History produces social value; as the fans say, the team is forever, meaning that the protagonists are replaceable and the club will continue regardless. There is a genealogical discussion about birth points, days of creation, founding fathers, the establishment of mythical time anchoring in the past, showing that history is recyclable through how it is expressed and performed in narratives that consists of stories, scarves, shirts, printed publications. Nietzsche’s concept of monumental history and Foucault’s genealogy helps her to show that football can be useful either in explaining why they need financial support or if it is about why they need to be in the highest league. Memorabilia, trophies like medals, old shoes, balls and other artefacts strengthen the narratives. Massive jubilee books also support the collective memory of feelings and gets what Herd calls museum-like qualities. She uses Baudrillard’s analysis of the values of signs to show how football memorabilia can be converted into collective memory and emotions for sale.

Analytically Herd sees strong history used for show off of a club’s position as a mix of what Assman call communicative and cultural memory. Or as the cultural historian Henry Glassie puts it, history is an artful assembly of materials from the past designed for the usefulness in the future. Different time frames change how the past is produced as history. One kind of time used in football is cosmogonic time, Herd argues, as presented by the geographer Tuan. It is a kind of time that leaves its mark on space thereby sanctioning it. By emphasizing their belonging to football rites, with strong involvements and a repetitiveness, interpretations are constructed that sustain a time outside time. Also, pockets of time are created around special places like stadiums to show how sustainable memory is created alongside with history.  To become a monument in the collective memory, however, it has to be communicatively situated with all the contents of a narrative: discourse, story and use.

Herd has an important discussion on intertextual reading and the ritualistic way that memory is structured, which shows how arenas and matches are filled with intertextual messages and every group is constituted in tracing memories around intertextual interpretations. Texts and textual elements are performed through rituals that employ materiality like flags and produce history. Performative engagement like drumming, chants, etcetera are crucial for the rituals to be fulfilled. Football changes but there is a collective memory that create structures for remembering.

Intertextual signs

In a chapter about history versus money and about class markers, we meet a consumer-oriented approach, where history acts as a specific form of cultural capital. A new, young financially strong club is being mocked by Djurgården for having bought its success. Interviewed fans and club officials remark that money has come at the cost of identity. There is too much money and commercial pressure in modern football. Becoming commercialized means losing the soul of football, says a fan. However, history can be used to counterbalance foreign investments. That historical narratives downplay the role of money is what Herd has found describing MFF’s struggle between tradition and new money, when entering champions league 2014. MFF’s history and traditions counterweigh financial investments and it is not just about the club’s history it also involves a construction where a working-class connection is important. There are working class myths told, related to working class cities which the newer clubs cannot relate to, e.g. all interviews with MFF referred to the club’s roots in the working-class movement, the social democrats and Eric Persson – a former MFF chairman. The connection to the working-class movement stresses continuity and stability. Shirts and colors are also materialities needed for the clubs to produce history, but stadiums and pitches are even stronger holders of emotions and memories.

Memories as spatial relations

Geographical elements like regions, stadiums and even grass can be used to show how memories have spatial rather than temporal relations. Memories are arranged by place and space rather than by time. What elements of spatial historical narratives are useful? Territoriality is an important part of how football clubs produce history. Their names do for instance relate to the place where they belong. Regional belonging is used both as pride and insult. Intertextual reading forms an important part in the analysis here. One text is related to others in complex meanings.  The past is understood as a form of cultural inventory,but only for those that have access to it. Texts on banners, flags etcetera depend on complex knowledge and on a broader understanding of the history of clubs, relating to their belonging.

Using the symbols of an established narrative like the dark memories of Black Army from the 90’s became a way, on an intertextual level, to relate to supporters.

Stadiums are being mythologized as homes. Herd describes them as liminal, heterotopic constructions that allow people to participate in rituals not appropriate elsewhere. Using Aleida Assman’s saying that places own a mnemonic power through their ability to bear memories, she shows how this agency makes football homes enter into different narrative contexts and stir emotions.  In a dramatic narrative of a lost home, the demolished stadium of Råsunda, Herd delivers a thick analysis that brings up many questions around place, space, topifilia, heterotopia, cosmogonic time as well as answers around historical production, memory storage, places for rituals and sacrifices, identity-building narratives, textualizing, de- and retextualizing and intertexts, showing how communicative and cultural memory work as monuments of collective memory.

An interesting discussion on how the very materiality of grass on the pitch can be described as an actant in a narrative that produce history shows that since artificial grass has come into use, natural grass has become an ideal from the past strongly connected with spirituality, good old days and mythical time. It is even grown locally.  A pitch can play a special role in constructing failure or success, the grass can both enhance victory and failure.

Collective identities and dark narrations

Focus throughout the thesis is on collective identities produced through references to the past; group identities are seen through the lens of spectators, supporters who build identities through collective involvement.  A narrative analysis based on Sara Ahmed’s theories shows how AIK has fostered its strength on dark narratives, as hated, dangerous and disliked. Herd finds it as an affective investment that ties together love and hate. It is a possible way to have an identity. Using the symbols of an established narrative like the dark memories of Black Army from the 90’s became a way, on an intertextual level, to relate to supporters. She identifies the hatred against AIK as a traditional thread in a narrative that builds and affirms, “let them hate us as long as they fear us”, says club officials and players of AIK. Past conflicts are used to strengthen a myth. The angry rat used as a symbol for the supporter club Black Army is also narrated as a way to refer to the olden days. She sees the rat saga as metafiction.

Performing group identity can happen in opposition, and even if the group is small ,with the right rituals, chants, banners, flags, smoke bombs, drumming’s and stories it may attract supporters, clubs and media as is the case with ultras. There is also a narrative among supporters of us versus them belonging to old versus young. However, in common they have the meaning of doing something together, sharing memories as a collective.

Players create history

It has been underlined throughout the thesis that the players themselves are not important, they are just tools in the game. They have limited possibilities to enter the collective memory. The players are justactants in the narrations, simply filling roles in producing history. However, the construction of the temporary hero of HIF, Henrik Larsson, can be useful when needed. He came back as a coach at the same time as the club was going down. He was the glimmer of hope. He expressed feelings for the club, he was both a football hero and a local hero in Helsingborg. He was talked into his own narrative by the fans making him a legend, a strong symbol as the biggest player ever. His story merged very well with the clubs long and rich history.

At the same time villains are needed to contrast heroes and Herd explains how a dark narrative of a bad player can be used to produce the history of Malmö FF as a mocking history. It is a story about sexual abuse that one player was convicted for. Players like these become contagious as their demeanor permeates their club’s supporters and team mates. They become a magic tool in a magic rite. An insult like this can live on for years.

Structures of history production in football

In investigating rituals, collective memory, narrative, myth, performance and materiality, Herd has found possible structures of historical production in football in special secluded spaces. She has found histories to be flexible narratives and she sees the clubs as a certain form of institutions and myths as results of producing history, not only side effects. There are different types of time in football and player’s stories exemplify different time flows. There is an ongoing history-making in the heterotopia of football that constitutes the engagement to mix collective memories, emotions, materiality and performances in creating collective identity.

Besides the accomplished, stringent analysis, there are many small but important things for the structure such as the well formulated chapter titles that fittingly encapsulates what can be expected under them.

Herd has managed to show how the production of history in these four football clubs has provided a deeper understanding of collective environments and how they are established, maintained and contested by historical narration in using her strong tool box throughout the presentation. The structure is good and comes out very well in meaningful, telling chapter titles. Adequate material has been used with a clear methodological account. Findings are new and in a good way unexpected since she is using unusual ways to combine concepts and ideas. It can be said that this thesis relay on many old male giants, but there are also younger female giants like Aleida Assman, Sara Ahmed and Susan Stewart that make important contributions to Herd’s analysis.

However, there are also things that can be discussed, about materialized objects or illustrations and about unnecessary namedropping and unused analytical possibilities about differences between time, the past and history or what it really means that something is communicatively situated. References to Lefebvre about symbolic space could have been elaborated and there is a strong emphasis on HIF. Obviously, this has become Herds favorite club without her arguing why. As presented, HIF has got everything needed to produce the best history: the same stadium over time; a solid collective memory to build collective identities from; the routinely use the magical use of myths of a true hero; etcetera.

This is a methodology driven thesis, strong and tight in its analysis at the same time as it is vividly presenting an ample and detailed scene where football is performed. Many well-informed observations, chats, shadowings as well as several supporters, players, former players, policemen, safety guards, and others have contributed to a rich presentation. Throughout, there are explanatory digressions which themselves create new knowledge. Place and space could have been clarified, time and history problematized more. Using Julia Kristeva on intertextuality would have made a good analysis even better, but there is always more to do and what has been done is well enough.  Besides the accomplished, stringent analysis, there are many small but important things for the structure such as the well formulated chapter titles that fittingly encapsulates what can be expected under them. Fine summarizing expressions such as human museums, shirts as wearable history, flaming scarves as symbolic destruction of enemies before battles, memory that became culturally mutated to be a tradition; those are short expressions filled with analytical meaning.

Before this dissertation there was no investigation of how football or football narratives are anchored in the past. Now there is and it is well done. If football is the biggest sport in the world the findings here are certainly relevant for how values and attitudes are shaped in Western cultures.

Copyright © Birgitta Svensson 2019

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.