Does soccer unite us all?
Soccer is a very powerful cultural force in most parts of the world, with the power to unite and to divide. There are certainly many examples of the unifying power of the sport, across class and ethnic lines. Many observers noted the reemergence of a new, liberalized nationalism among German fans in response to the team's performance in the 2006 World Cup. Similarly, the French national team, composed of several players of African and North African descent, was held up as an example of a new multicultural France in 1998. Numerous examples exist of domestic strife that has halted in response to football matches, perhaps the most famous recent example being the cease-fire declared in the Ivory Coast in response to star footballer Didier Drogba's plea in 2006. Events on the pitch, such as Chelsea player John Terry's recent use of a racial epithet against Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand, and Liverpool striker Luis Suarez's racial abuse of Manchester United player Patrice Evra, have sparked debate that while divisive, is widely viewed as constructive in English society.
But football also reflects many of the divisions in society. The core fanbases of many club teams tend to identify with various ethnic groups and social classes. The two clubs in Glasgow, Rangers and Celtic, are associated with Protestants and Catholics respectively, and the "Auld Firm" rivalry played between the two has often been witness to violence and unrest. Last winter, fans of opposing Egyptian clubs, affiliated unofficially with rival political factions, rioted, with dozens of deaths. And the association of many South American club supporters groups, known as "barras bravas," with organized crime is well-known. In other cases, the game itself has been witness to considerable (though not necessarily violent) tribalism between supporters of such longtime rivals as Liverpool and Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, Real Madrid and Barcelona; and Paris St. Germain and Marseille.
So while the game itself has the power to bring people together and to spark constructive debate on important issues, it also tends to reflect political, economic, and ethnic divisions that plague the societies in which it is such an important cultural institution. In many cases, football rivalries themselves can become bitter even in the absence of major underlying social divisions. On the other hand, few institutions are as globally prevalent as soccer, and if it is often plagued by violence and division, the sport also has considerable potential to address some of the social problems it reflects.