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France - the FIFA World Cup Winner - and the Territorial Prison Theory of Identity

Once France won the FIFA Men’s World Cup a new topic occupied media attention (see BBC, 2018; The Local, 2018) - how ‘French’ was the French team? One commentary stood out; comedian Trevor Noah joked that Africa, not France, had won the World Cup, mostly because of the ethnic origins of its players (see Trevor Noah’s Instagram post).

France the FIFA World Cup Winner and the Territorial Prison Theory of Identity

Questions of athletes’ origins and their national alliances are recurrent, as with the cases of Andy Murray (British when he wins, Scottish when he loses – see The Guardian, 2015) and more recently with Mesut Ozil (German when he wins, Turkish when he loses) deciding to retire from international football (see The Guardian, 2018) (you can read his thoughts on racism and disrespect here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

While Noah held his viewpoint even after receiving a letter from the France ambassador in the USA (YouTube) arguing that what he was trying to do was not to remove the Africanness from the players’ Frenchness, I would argued that he – and, to some extent, the ambassador - still fell into the trap presented within (i) the territorial prison theory of identity and (ii) the national outlook (see Beck, 2010). But what did the late sociologist Ulrich Beck (see his obituary here) mean here?

Ulrich Beck - in what I call as his ‘second grand phase’ - was deeply concerned with questions regarding how nationalism and cosmopolitanism are intertwined in our daily lives and also in broad sociologists’ reflections of the world. For Beck, the sociological use of ‘globalisation’ can be distinguished in three periods: denial; conceptual refinement and empirical research; and epistemological shift. Both territorial prison theory of identity and the national outlook can be said to inhabit the second period of this tripartite framework. Regarding territorial prison theory, Beck intended to show how both sociologists and non-sociologists of all stripes think of identities using local physical roots to define who an individual is/is not. Regarding the national outlook, our imagination compels us to equate society to nation-state. In a sense, we would encounter as many societies as nation-states. Here ‘society’ can be substituted for ‘culture’.

For both concepts to work together would mean that the local roots in the territorial prison theory of identity would assume local homogeneity, and this homogeneity would run along the lines of the nation-state borders (the national outlook). In the example above we encounter a homogeneous France and a homogeneous Africa that would be heterogeneous between them. Nevertheless, rather than juxtaposing France and Africa, we can image them on a long historical movement of syncretism that had started well before European colonialism in the 1500s; it is as old as humanity itself. Just two other historical instances exemplify this long historical syncretism; the Vandals’ - an East Germanic tribe - migration to North Africa in the 5th Century AD (see Merrillls, 2004), and the Moors’ - Muslims originally from North Africa - conquest and empire between 711AD and 1492AD of the Iberian peninsula and some areas of what we today understand as Southern France (see Watt and Cachia, 2000). In a way, the West was already the East (see Goody, 1996), while France was already Africa and Africa was already France long before anyone envisioned a World Cup.

The territorial prison theory of identity and national outlook (or methodological nationalism in the case of sociologists) not only impact on our understanding of those players ‘nationalities’ but also on how we understand global football fandom. As I have tried to show in my different research (see Petersen-Wagner, 2017a, 2017b), the Liverpool FC supporters who I followed for 18 months even being geographically scattered (in Switzerland and Brazil) did not see themselves as Swiss-Liverpool or Brazilian-Liverpool supporters, but uniquely as Liverpool supporters. In a sense, those supporters were both physical and metaphysical ‘migrants’; they would shape and were shaped by what some academics understand as the genuine way of supporting a club - the local, white, working class, men custodian of the game (see King, 1997; Giulianotti, 2002).

To summarise, it seems that trying to find the pristine and virgin essence of a culture - like that of a footballing culture, or linking that pristine and virgin culture to a locality - in both space and time - becomes solely a nostalgic chimera. This quote summarises what I have tried to expose here: “Patriotism, Sir, is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ Dr Samuel Johnson, some 200 years ago, also commented [...] The partisans of that older form of devotion to an abstract cause regard their sentiments as pristine, as though endowed with a kind of vulnerable virginity. They tend to defend this virginity even when it is under no discernible form of attack [...] The British way of life, for instance, is a judicious mixture of Ancient British, Roman, Saxon, Danish and Norman ways of doing things, flavoured by many incidental condiments on the side [...] The virginity, then, is an illusion. All nations, even in their essence, are amalgams, the result of primeval jostling of tribes for better bits of territory, for water, for forests, for high places. The patriotic gleam in the eye is the result of an abstract concept, the fulfilling of some sort of human need by fantasy and make-believe” (Ustinov, Pitfalls of Patriotism, 1990).

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Dr Renan Petersen-Wagner

Renan is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Business and Marketing at Leeds Beckett University, and Course Level Leader for BA(Hons) Sport Marketing.

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