Cultural Understanding: The English Sports Fan as Global Ambassador?

Businesspeople love to use sports analogies. A English or Australian manager may warn that a product defect will mean he is “Batting on a sticky wicket”. In the USA when tempers flare at meetings cooler heads might request “A time out” (on first hearing, this caused me to anticipate a chocolate caramel treat). But what cultural differences are shown by sports, and the sports fan? Can sports be the basis for cultural understanding? What, for instance, can we learn about the English from the behavior of their soccer supporters who travel abroad?

Simon Kuper, the Financial Times Sports Columnist writing in this Weekend’s Edition reports that the English as a nation enjoy foreign travel partly because of their belief that, once abroad, none of the usual inhibitions apply. They feel at liberty to talk to strangers, to order alcohol at 6am. Thinking back to my own decision to emigrate from England 25 years ago, there is a certain truth to that claim. When you grow up in an island nation with, as Bill Bryson so cleverly points out in Notes from a Small Island:

“a totally private sense of distance..most visibly seen in the shared pretense that Britain is a lonely island in the middle of an empty green sea.”

then a wonderful sense of freedom and awe is felt when you first experience the sheer size of continents like North America, which had so many elements (distant horizons, extremes of weather, tasty food and sexually appealing residents) that England lacks. It’s all very seductive and a typical Englishman or woman might well let their hair down while on holiday.

Kuper reveals the dark underbelly of certain Englishmen (dealing as he does with exclusively male gangs of soccer supporters) when abroad:

“Other nationalities are deterred from traveling to games by fear of physical discomfort. Many English people, however, enjoy physical discomfort. I was once jammed among drunken Manchester United supporters who were toppling backwards, urinating and shouting abuse at Portuguese people while queuing for a game in Porto. I realised: this is what they’d come for. Traveling with British fans often involves hangovers, nausea, disgusting toilets, extreme cold or heat, and being tear-gassed by police. To many British fans, it’s all part of “having a laugh”.”

Kuper expresses the opinion that sporting tournaments worldwide are “morping into British cultural festivals” and claims foreigners admire the Brits passion and abandon. At the soccer World Cup in 2002 he saw “nymph-like Japanese schoolgirls [getting] photographed with fat, drunken, shaven-headed England fans.” This leads him to argue that Britain’s image abroad, once shaped by “the English gentleman” is now shaped by “the English party animal” and that these inebriated ambassadors of Albion are exerting a “grip on global youth culture”, attracting foreign students to the UK (“Oh, let’s go where we can study with the drunken, urinating ones, Naomi-san”) and even generating important sources of revenue for the British music and sports businesses.

Well, Man U are a leading global brand. We’ve seen the success the British musical exports from The Beatles and Rolling Stones through Oasis and now Coldplay and Franz Ferdinand. But I find it difficult to attribute this success to the obnoxious behavior of the uninhibited English soccer fan visiting Osaka or Lisbon.

Rather than try and understand the English by extrapolating from their untypical behaviors while on their hols, it’s better by far to look at their sports fans on their home turf. Here you’ll see a passionate identification with the locality (Once an Alex supporter, always an Alex supporter, as they used to say at Gresty Road in Crewe). There’s a phlegmatic ability to support the underdog (as Arthur Fowler did year in and year out on Eastenders, and as they used to demonstrate at Gresty Road). They also cemented the economic domination of the days of Empire with the lasting delight of the games of rugby and cricket in far corners of the globe.

It’s hard to see this behavior outside the British Isles.

Certainly, modern-day America has stimulated some interest in American football via satellite broadcasts into Australian and British living rooms, and the Japanese have an inordinate fondness for baseball. But few nations holds a “World Series” where other countries are not invited to play. And I can’t see the current Empire-building spree in the Middle East leaving a legacy of touch football behind. When football teams regularly migrate from Oakland to Los Angeles and back, and ballparks are named and renamed by ICT companies, there’s little permanence in the American sporting scene (with noticeable exceptions such as the Green Bay Packers and the New York baseball teams).

A real basis for cultural understanding might be the willingness of people who travel abroad to take the time to enjoy local sports. Blend in with the crowd at a bullfight in Barcelona, a sumo match in Saga, an Aussie rules football game in Adelaide or a visit to Gresty Road on a cold gray winter afternoon to watch the Alex lose to Wigan, while the crowd shout good-natured obscenities and sip their hot Bovril.

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Interesting view on cultural differences in business life between the US and UK in this May 16, 2013 piece in the FT. The author notes that “…some sports references that are common in business communication may require translation. Such references need careful consideration when crafting material for sales or presentations.”



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