Illustration: Two people face each other on the soccer field at the kickoff point. The soccer ball looks like a globe. The people are carrying suitcases with the symbol of the soccer / globe.
An Arena for Nationalist Sentiments

Sport is a culture that helps nations, communities and individuals to communicate. Sporting events are especially political when they are linked to national teams and international competitions.

Sports events, particularly when linked to international competitions, are political spaces par excellence in that they allow for the rallying of nationalist sentiments in an environment that is perceived as safe and non-violent. International sports events are able to bring the people of a country together by overcoming internal divisions, if only temporarily. They can even make it possible to address and resolve international resentments. International sporting events can also provide a space for cooperation and hence the first steps towards rapprochement between otherwise divided nations.

Soccer and cricket are perhaps the best examples of this. The Indian and Pakistani national cricket teams are able to play against and with each other – even when their countries’ official diplomatic relationship is tense. In 1998, Iran and the USA played each other at soccer without any major incidents. The political dimensions of such encounters are quite obvious and often manifest themselves in a strong societal and political reaction in the immediate aftermath of such games.


Argentine fans cheer, wave flags and confetti flies in the air.
International sports events provide all the necessary ingredients for instilling nationalist sentiments among the people of a participating country, photo: Frédéric Cirou via picture alliance

In short, sports events are inherently political, particularly when associated with national teams and international competitions. As such, they are core elements of nationalism and the international order.

In his book 'Nations and Nationalism Since 1780', Eric Hobsbawm has demonstrated that nationalism is an invented tradition. First of all it has to be proposed, or invented, and then instilled in people’s minds through the use of symbols, emblems, and similar appeals to a people’s emotions. The media is a necessary ingredient in the dissemination of nationalist ideas and proposals as nationalism cannot survive without broad dissemination.

Of course, international sports events provide all the necessary ingredients for instilling nationalist sentiments among the people of a participating country. Athletes wear national symbols; national hymns and anthems are played and sung; media coverage is extensive.

As such, international sporting competitions provide a safe outlet for international tensions and a way to rally the people of a coutry behind a common banner – whether it is invented or not. Seen from this angle, international sports events are genuinely positive, helpful, and desirable events that have an important role to play in conflict avoidance and the channelling of nationalist emotions into a safe and controlled arena. Sports events can fulfil diplomatic functions and provide spaces for peaceful conflict resolution. Why would anybody criticise this very accepted practice?

International sporting competitions provide a safe outlet for international tensions and a way to rally the people of a coutry behind a common banner – whether it is invented or not.

It’s not that I dislike physical activity – I’m an avid practitioner of a number of sports. I not only love sport, but I believe everyone should get physically active for the sake of their health and as a way of engaging in a fun, communal activity. But I do have problems with certain elements in professional, and particularly international, sports competitions.


Avenues for international sports events

Firstly, while international sports events may serve as avenues for international diplomacy and even lead to overcoming national animosities, sport is also one of the core elements used to rally nationalist sentiment. In other words, if, like me, you perceive nationalism as a problem, then sport is not the way to overcome it – precisely because it is the use of symbols and emblems in sport that creates nationalistic sentiments. Sport serves nationalist purposes by providing a way of ‘imagining the nation’.

If we want to dilute the power of nationalism, we need fewer, not more, international sports competitions.

Even if the resulting nationalism is of the more benign kind – as is the case with Brazilians, who tend to see themselves as a natioof soccer players and samba dancers – sports events still provide the means to foster and forge nationalist sentiments. The content may vary, but the difference between people who see themselves as dancers and those who see themselves as soldiers is quantitative not qualitative.

Sporting competitions, particularly those that are organised internationally and promoted as huge media events, provide the means to forge and disseminate nationalist sentiments. They are not the best way of combating such sentiments. Put simply: if we want to dilute the power of nationalism, we need fewer, not more, international sports competitions.


Secondly, it seems that capitalism and market competition have totally changed what sport used to be and can be, and there are two trends at the heart of this change. On the one hand, there is the undue influence of (big) money on sports. With some athletes earning millions of dollars or euros, some professional sports have become extremely inflationary, elevating some athletes to the status of multi-millionaires and transforming some clubs and associations into corrupt money pits.

FIFA is just one of many examples of how money distorts and detracts from the essence and core of sporting activity. On the other hand, it appears that sport has become so embedded in capitalism that winning at any price has become the single focus and goal of athletes and teams. Just as capitalist markets are driven by competition, capitalist sports leave no room for cooperation and community building.

As a result, when operating under a capitalist logic, sporting activity loses its ability to bring people together and forge bonds between individuals, groups, countries, and nations.

A one dollar bill on white background.
Capitalist sports leave no room for cooperation and community building, photo: Kenny Eliason via unsplash

Instead of providing a space for peaceful interaction and conflict resolution, some international sports events become battlegrounds in their own right, where animosity is promoted rather than reduced.

The negative influence of money and capitalism in this transformation can easily be gauged by comparing high-money sports events with those that are less monetised. Today, it seems to me that women’s soccer is outdoing the men’s game in terms of sportsmanship and attitude. The Olympics provide a telling counterpoint to most World Cups – precisely because the influence of money on the Olympics is kept at bay.


Neo-Nazis and soccer

Thirdly, instead of providing a controlled and safe environment for individuals and groups to channel their emotions and even frustrations into a sports event, we are increasingly witnessing how the organisers of sports events are neglecting this role and instead providing safe havens for those who use crowds to voice their anger and hate. We now routinely read about Spanish soccer fans who abuse black players in extremely discriminatory and racist ways – without triggering decisive action from their teams or the associations to which they belong.

While some actions are taken only reluctantly, decisive action against racism and discrimination would require much more severe sanctions to be imposed on the teams and fans who allow this kind of discrimination to thrive. A team that harbours racism should be banned from playing for a whole season – and if it continues to offend it should be disbanded altogether.

In Germany, neo-Nazis have a long history of gathering at soccer events and using the crowd to spread their nasty blend of violence and hatred. However, instead of addressing this issue directly by targeting the neo-Nazis and the teams who shelter them, the German police is called upon to protect ordinary citizens and their property from the violent excesses of neo-Nazis and their hate-inspired followers. Racism and violent extremism have found refuge in sport associations and clubs to such extent that these clubs must be forced to take much more decisive action against racism and hatred. They can no longer provide a platform for hatred and racism – and if they do, they should be dissolved.


Fans in the Südkurve München at the Allianz Arena celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Südkurve with pyros and smoke bombs.
Violence and destruction on a disproportionate scale regularly occur during major sports events, photo: Pressebildagentur Ulmer via picture alliance

Neo-Nazis and hooligans are, however, only the tip of the proverbial iceberg in this discussion, as ‘ordinary’ citizens can all too quickly turn into violent monsters when faced with the fans of an opposing sports team.

The kind of violence and destruction of property that routinely occurs during major sports events has become so disproportionate that it calls the whole activity into question. Hundreds of police officers are deployed whenever major sports events are held, and have to keep the opposing fans apart as if they were lions in a zoo. These fans also routinely march through cities and damage and destroy whatever they find in their way – be it cars, windows, storefronts, or public property.

I see no good reason why ordinary citizens should allow their tax dollars to be spent on hosting events where fan violence costs thousands of public dollars or euros, while the participating teams earn millions but refuse to take an active role in preventing this violence and havoc.

Fourthly, while sports may provide an avenue for the prevention of violence and even a platform for international diplomacy, most sports are still heavily male-dominated and the associations that organise national and international competitions still constitute a playground for the ‘good old boys’.

FIFA may be an extreme example, but it is certainly not the only association that is dominated by elderly men and has a colonial bias. When money runs the show, it also comes as no surprise that the world’s rich countries and regions control the game. Under such conditions, instead of creating a better and fairer world, sport contributes to upholding male dominance and colonial power.

Finally, sport has an eerie connection to militarism and totalitarianism – or at least it has the potential to do so. Anyone who has watched Leni Riefenstahl’s 'Triumph of the Will' has seen how this potential was thoroughly milked by the Nazis in Germany. As Riefenstahl demonstrates, sport can be used to forge unity and an organic oneness with a group, and as such it has the potential to switch off individualism and critical opinions. Soldiers can be forged through sport, as was the case in Nazi Germany.

When this kind of group pressure and conformity reaches its highest level, the result can be that non-conformist individuals are at risk of being singled out, mistreated, and shunned.


A form of torture

I suspect we can all tell stories of our school days, when the kids who were unwilling or unable to take part in sport sometimes suffered severe physical and emotional consequences. Some of my classmates found PE classes were quite simply a form of torture spearheaded by conformity-minded quasi-fascists who were authorised to serve as physical education teachers.

There should always be space for non-conformity, and group pressure should always be held at bay so that it does not develop into totalitarianism and fascism.

Sport is a beautiful and healthy thing. At its best, it can build a sense of community and bring people together. It can prolong the lives of those who are physical active on a regular basis. But if sport becomes too money-driven and capitalist; if sports teams shelter racists and provide them with a platform to spread their venom; and if sports fans abuse the publically funded arenas that they occupy on their way to a game and if their teams shy away from their responsibility of providing a safe, controlled environment, then I believe sports event can no longer be justified and should no longer be held.

Sport and physical activity can also easily become a way of marginalising and stigmatising those who are perceived as ‘less able’. Sports events then become a place where discrimination and hatred are fostered and allowed to spread. Whenever this happens, sport loses its justification.


A poster with the words "To be silent is to be complicit" is lying on the street.
Sports events should provide an environment and an incentive structure that is safe and conducive to cooperation and community building, photo: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona via unsplash

This does not mean that organised physical activity and sports events are inherently bad. Rather, it means that their organisers are called upon to provide an environment and an incentive structure that is safe and conducive to cooperation and community building. When sport becomes a harbinger of racism and an excuse for viciously shunning and mistreating those who are perceived as less able or different, then such sport events should be stopped.

There should always be space for non-conformity, and group pressure should always be held at bay so that it does not develop into totalitarianism and fascism.

And finally, male bias should be actively combated by actively recruiting and promoting women – not just among athletes, but particularly in the ranks of the organisers of sports events and competitions.

Finally, taking money out of sports would serve the sport, the players, and the countries and communities involved in this activity. It would also have the potential to restore what I believe was the original premise of physical activity and sporting competition: building bridges, bringing people together, teaching kids how to follow rules, and investing in one’s health and wellbeing.

About the author
Portrait of Bernd Reiter
Bernd Reiter
Professor of Comparative Politics at Texas Tech University

Bernd Reiter is Professor of Comparative Politics at Texas Tech University. Before joining academia, he was an NGO consultant in Brazil and Colombia. His work focuses on democracy and citizenship.

A selection of books:

  • Decolonizing the Social Sciences and Humanities: An Anti-Elitism Manifesto. Routledge, London 2021
  • Legal Duty and Upper Limits: How to Save our Democracy and Planet from the Rich. Anthem Press, 2020
  • Constructing the Pluriverse. The Geopolitics of Knowledge. Duke University Press, 2018
  • The Crisis of Liberal Democracy and the Path Ahead. Alternatives to Political Representation and Capitalism. Rowman & Littlefield International, London 2017
  • Bridging Scholarship and Activism. Reflections from the Frontlines of Collaborative Research. Michigan State University Press, 2014
  • The Dialectics of Citizenship.Exploring Privilege, Exclusion, and Racialization. Michigan State University Press, 2013