Club or country - which national team will you be supporting at this year's World Cup?

Dr Sue Bridgewater

Posted: June 9, 2014

Tagged: consumers / culture / fans / motives

Many fans are delighted at the prospect of a major summer football tournament, a national team to support, maybe a social get together or two if the team progresses and the prospect of heady excitement, should England, or whichever team you support, make it past the group stages.

For others though, tournament football is not such an exciting prospect. “Meh! Can’t get too excited about it!” is a sentiment which is surprisingly common if you look at social media in the build up to Brazil.

Now partly I might be seeing English pessimism resulting from the “30something years of hurt” since England won a major tournament. Partly, though, it raises the question of why and how some fans switch their excitement and passion to a different team for a period of time, whilst others do not.

Around the FIFA World Cup in Germany 2006, I did various pieces of research about national team support and specifically about what happens to fans of countries who don’t qualify for a particular tournament. Do they support a different country or no one?

It is popularly reputed that if you ask this question of a Scottish fan, you will get the answer that, if they are interested at all, they will support “whoever is playing against England.” In China, there appears to be a much stronger pattern of “two country” allegiance. So, in 2006, though China were not represented, over 80% of fans said that they would still be interested in the World Cup, usually choosing a team to support for the duration, whether that be Brazil, England, Germany, Italy and so on. Similarly in the 2002 South Korea-Japan World Cup, we have abiding images of local fans sporting the team colours of nations other than their own, a phenomenon also seen in the 2010 South Africa World Cup where, in the later stages of the tournament, local fans sometimes chose an allegiance to another team to support, not always a team from Africa.

The assumption, though, that football support is just more “tribal” in some parts of the world than others masks a lot of much more complex motivations in fan support of national and club football teams.

First, history, wars, culture still play a role in the “other team” which might be chosen. So, whilst many Chinese fans opted to be England fans in 2006, despite their relative lack of success on the pitch, far fewer Chinese fans chose allegiance to Japan, despite its closer geographic proximity. So, maybe the question asked of Scottish fans is only getting that answer because England are a historic rival? It might well be that a similar proportion of around 80% of Scottish football fans will follow the World Cup and will also choose a preferred country to support on some basis or other.

Here is a list of just a few of the criteria which fans used to select this “other” team in my earlier research; playing style; star players; star manager; some form of link to that country – relatives, ancestors from there; having studied there; gone there on holiday; allegiance with a particular player who has a link to the country in question.

Second, even within a country, given the multi-cultural ethnic mix in many nations, the question of national identity is far more complex than that of which club side we might choose. So the biggest influence in choosing a club side to support is parental influence – this was the team which my father or mother supported – sometimes geographical proximity, sometimes affinity with a particular player, sometimes because the team attracts attention with a memorable victory or is just very successful and so on.

But do we necessarily identify with the country in which we live, or whose nationality we bear? Again, past research says not necessarily. Research with Asian British football fans showed that while many were happy to follow an English club side, there was a greater ambivalence about supporting the English national side. I have a particular memory of a young boy, the third generation of his family to have lived in England and the second to have been born in England, saying “I am not English, as I can’t support India in the World Cup I am supporting Brazil, at least they’re good!”

I can hear some of you saying that there are times when it would be quite handy to be able to disassociate yourselves from our national team and choose one with a greater likelihood of winning, but that’s the rub with identity and association. If you do strongly identify with a team or country, it isn’t that easy, because it feels like a betrayal.

Which brings us on to the third facet of national team support. Sometimes, whatever motivates us to be a football fan, whatever need that fulfills, can also be fulfilled by a football tournament, sometimes it cannot. To list just a few of the motivations of fan football support, the “why” or “why not” questions of fan engagement, there are social motivations – I enjoy going to matches, watching matches with my friends, maybe over a beer. Another motivation is local, cultural pride – this is my town, city, region, country. Sometimes it is strongly emotional and tied into motivations which go back generations, or are strongly tied to family. Yet another is about the players as personalities and celebrities, and another about the playing style of the team as a whole and the enjoyment, which this might give someone who is a devotee of the beautiful game.

We may have some, or all of these, or others not listed above, but we will also have them in different proportions and place greater emphasis on some rather than others. Not all fans even within a single club are the same, in fact I’d go as far as claiming that we are all unique in our reasons for being football fans.

Maybe it isn’t so surprising then that some football fans can gain massive enjoyment out of watching a FIFA World Cup tournament, while others feel fairly detached from it. Perhaps your reason for enjoying football just doesn’t transfer across to a national-level tournament? If it does, and you don’t strongly identify with a particular national team, you will be able to choose a team to support, maybe a samba-style Brazilian, or organized and disciplined German team, or maybe that surprise package of the group stages, the underdog in the knock-out stages.

If you are any of the last of these, spare a thought for us, the strongly identified England fans out here though?

The next few weeks are bound to be a rollercoaster, and while we might experience unimaginable highs, there is a pretty strong chance that we are also going to go through some painful, excoriating lows.  You know what though, I for one wouldn’t miss it for (any other country) in the world!

About Dr Sue Bridgewater

Dr Sue Bridgewater is Director of Sports Research at Liverpool University. She designed and for the past 12 years has directed and delivered leadership and management courses for professional football managers on behalf of the League Managers Association for whom she also delivers football management statistics. Having studied modern languages before her MBA and PhD, Sue worked in industry as a marketer and as an international business specialist, so is has a range of interests from sports sponsorship and brands to elite sporting careers.