In life a man can change wives, political parties, or religions, but he cannot change his favourite football team.” –Eduardo Galleano

In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson contends that what we think of as nations are in essence imagined communities. “Imagined,” he claims, because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6). He further suggests that this feeling of communion results because “the nation is always conceived of a deep, horizontal comradeship” (6). This comradeship is so strong throughout the community because, in part, the nation is defined as “both inherently limited and sovereign” (6).

Interestingly enough, one of Anderson’s primary objectives in theorizing the nation is to fully understand the relationship between communal imagination and the sacrifice that so many people are willing to make when they die for their country. He says:

These deaths [during war] bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? (7)

Anderson goes on to examine the roots of nationalism and how these elicit emotions strong enough to warrant this ultimate sacrifice.

While Anderson’s analysis continually implies that one’s national affiliation necessarily reigns supreme, there are certainly other communal affiliations that, for some, can arouse an equal if not stronger emotional connection. Sports fans supporting the same team are an example of such a competing, sub-national imagined community. These communities exist all over the world, but those especially pertinent to my essay are the soccer fan bases in England.

Most English citizens align themselves with one club or another, be it a club in the Premier League (the top 20 clubs), or one of the three Football Leagues that are home to the next three tiers of clubs. While there certainly are varying degrees of commitment among fans, each club has a defined community associated with it, and these communities are partially imagined, limited, horizontal comradeships based on a common allegiance and certain unique qualities rather than face-to-face contact among members. Like Anderson, I will spend the bulk of my essay trying to get at the root of the violence caused by soccer fans as groups, a serious problem in England and other parts of the world. My hope will be to determine whether Anderson’s reasons for violence associated with imagined nation communities—reasons he ties solely to strong affiliation within —are the chief cause of the violence associated with soccer fan bases.

First, in what ways is a given soccer club’s fan base a community? Well, on a basic level, its individual members have little significance without their fellow fans. This sounds odd, but picture the most vehement group of soccer supporters you could imagine in the stands during a key match versus a rival. For example, here, photographer Thanassis Stavrakis captures a group of Liverpool FC fans prior to the 2007 Champions League Final. If, while concentrating on a given individual, say, the man directly to the bottom-right of the flag, you were to blot out the people and paraphernalia around him, the sole fan remaining would appear ridiculous. He has his hands raised in glory and his mouth open in awe. You would wonder what in the world he is so bemused about. His meaning, purpose, and actions become clear only when the rest of the crowd—his fan base and community—are brought back into focus. Along the same lines, it is fairly safe to assert that without their comrades around them, none of these fans would be acting as they are in this picture. The emotions expressed by the fans come primarily from within each individual, however it is only with the support of their fellow fans that these emotions surface. A kind of mutual support for displays of shameless and selfless devotion that results from the presence of other fans is evidence that although most soccer fans do not know one another, they do in fact make up distinct communities.

So, what is it that makes these distinct communities “imagined?” Well, as I have already established, members of these communities do not know the majority of their fellow members. Thus, there must be some abstract set of ideas that binds these soccer fans together. Author Nick Hornby touches on several of these when he describes his first trip to a soccer match in his memoir Fever Pitch:

I remember the overwhelming maleness of it all, cigar and pipe smoke, foul language (words I had heard before, but not from adults, not at that volume), and only years later did it occur to me that this was bound to have an effect on a boy who lived with his mother and his sister (19).

Although there are certainly plenty of female fans, there is a strong sense of masculinity within soccer fan bases. When among members of these communities, one can do all the manly things one wishes, such as smoke and yell words that adults would never otherwise yell. This acceptance of what might otherwise be considered uncivilized, mannish actions is a key belief that soccer fans share. Later in his memoir, Hornby describes the sense of loyalty to a club that a fan develops over time, experiencing the ups-and-downs of the season along with the team. This allegiance is “not a moral choice like bravery or kindness . . . more like a wart or a hump, something you were stuck with” (35). A soccer fan makes a commitment to a club, and attending matches, whether they are fun or painful, is part of that commitment. Loyalty to a particular team and open masculinity are two central ideas shared by soccer fan bases that help strengthen the members’ image of their community.

Thus, it is clear that a soccer club’s fans make up an imagined community, but it is still necessary to understand why there is so much violence associated with these imagined communities. One possible answer is that fans have considerable passion for their club and this could lead them to take violent action. But, realistically, is this passion alone enough to make most individuals willing to hurt others physically? Probably not. In his book, Among the Thugs, Bill Buford, an American journalist, travels to England and immerses himself among ardent soccer fans in different parts of Europe to learn about their psyches. Before a match between Manchester United and West Ham, Buford describes the scene at a train station involving fans of both clubs:

I found myself in the middle of the group (of Manchester United fans), which was not where I wanted to be, and I tried to work my way to the front, but I was too late. The crowd was starting to move; it had started off in the direction of the station. It proceeded in a measured way, nothing frantic, at the pace of a steady walk . . . The pace accelerated—gradually. It increased a little more. Someone started to chant, “Kill, kill, kill.” The chant was whispered at first, as though it were being said reluctantly. Then it was picked up by the others. The pace quickened to a jog, and then a faster jog, and then a run.

An old woman was knocked over, and two shopping bags of food spilled on the pavement.

Halfway up the ramp, the group was at a full sprint: a thousand people, running hard, chanting loudly: “KILL, KILL, KILL.” I was trying to calculate what was in store . . . if the (train) was on time, the West Ham supporters would be clearing the ticket barrier and heading for the main waiting area—that shiny floor where I kept seeing a thick, coagulating puddle of blood. (122-123)

This scene illustrates the escalation of the group fervor and a resulting loss in control, both of which make bloodshed imminent. It seems to be no individual’s fault, save perhaps the one who started the chant. But it is clear that while reluctant at first, everyone in the group was presently united in the chant, “KILL, KILL, KILL,” and united in belligerence. This image exemplifies a term Anderson used in his book to characterize the imagined community: unisonance. He describes unisonance as occurring when “people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody” (145). At these moments, when the populace of an imagined community speak or sing as one, no individual can significantly affect the sound that is produced. Similarly, in the scene painted by Buford, no individual has the power to resist or overcome the state of this mob of fans. Here, the mob effect is chiefly to blame for the violence. While the shared feeling of masculinity and loyalty certainly play a part, it is unlikely that most of the thousands of people would be willing to physically attack a group of strangers without the mob as support. The individual has completely lost any significance and it is simply a matter of one imagined community versus another.

Just as individuals of one imagined community lose their personal identity, so do the individuals of the opposing imagined communities. Thus, members of one community begin to see the members of the rival community not as individuals with unique characteristics but as nameless representatives of the imagined community to which they belong. This can be illustrated through a photograph by Arne Müseler, which depicts a mob of German fans during the 2006 World Cup. It is easy enough to look at the picture and see merely a sea of black, red, and gold, as opposed to individual faces. These colors have no direct relation to any of the fans, per se, but are the official colors of Germany, the German national soccer team, and the community of fans that supports them. It is understandable, then, how the process of communal imagination dehumanizes not only the members of one’s own community but those of the adversarial community. This dehumanization certainly makes it easier for so many individuals to rationalize taking violent action against strangers. So, in a way, is it also a certain feeling towards an opposing imagined community that can contribute to violence?

I believe it can, and this is where Anderson’s argument is incomplete: In explaining the sacrifice that so many have made in war, he reviews a number of cultural circumstances that evoke a feeling of attachment to one’s own imagined community. However, he never considers that a person could be fighting in war not for his own imagined community but against another imagined community. As shown in my final exhibit, if one has a negative feeling towards a certain community, it is quite possible that he can justify taking violent actions against individuals in that community once he views them solely as nameless representatives of that community. And, while some would argue that this only holds true for small-scale imagined communities, such as soccer fan bases, the image above could just as easily be seen as a group of Germans representing their country, and in the World Cup, soccer imaginings are also in essence national imaginings.

Thus, although Anderson fails to mention it, his concept of imagined communities can explain not only violence inflicted on behalf of one’s own imagined community, but also violence inflicted due to negative feelings towards other imagined communities. Recognizing this new application of Anderson’s concept of the imagined community can help us better understand the bloodshed that often results from these negative feelings and replace it with civilized discourse.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Buford, Bill. Among the Thugs. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Hornby, Nick. Fever Pitch. New York: Riverhead Books, 1992.