“Football unites and separates people equally”

We speak with the sociologist Richard Giulianotti, guest speaker on our Master in Football Business, about the power of cohesion and separation, the globalization, the violence and the football business

Richard Giulianotti is one of the most illustrious academics of the University of Loughborough and, beyond its walls, a reference among the authors of books on sociology applied to the world of sport and, more specifically, on the influence of football on the social behavior of people, groups and society in general.

“As a researcher, I have specialized in areas such as globalization, peace, development, mega sporting events, youth, crime and deviance, within a sporting context, especially football,” says Giulianotti.

The students of the Master in Football Business in partnership with FC Barcelona enjoyed one of his master classes, before he sat in front of our camera to talk about management, development, globalization, business, cohesion and separation, and violence in football today.

What do you think makes football the most popular sport in the world compared to others?

The game has had many attractions for many types of societies. It was spread historically through different routes, through what might be seen as sort of trade and industrial routes, from an educational route from the UK and then more broadly into Europe, Latin America and then into also Africa and parts of Asia, for example, North America as well, there’s a bit of a hidden history there in terms of football’s long connection with North America, and it provided a kind of cultural, creative space, a physical space in which different cultures and societies could play and have fun, but also express themselves and then also develop forms of community, identity, different types of aesthetics have come through in terms of how the game can be played, should be played, different tactical manoeuvres or developments have occurred. So the game’s been a key space for those forms of local and national creativity, and it was that from the late 19th through to the 20th centuries and latterly there’s been a kind of new wave of globalisation that’s occurred in the last few decades with the global coverage that’s given to obviously the elite leagues, the leading leagues, the top clubs and the major tournaments. So in that sense, the game has also been at the forefront of globalisation processes in culture and also in media. So it’s been a culturally very significant game and has also been seen as an attractive game through which different societies and cultures can express themselves and explore and convey their forms of identity.

Football is also one of the most passionate sports in the world; can such a big business be managed by passionate people?

You could turn that question around, in the sense that the business sector has put more of a focus on some of these keywords around passion and inspiration and having leaders who have that kind of commitment to their industries, their products. The leaders of football clubs and federations certainly claim that they have that passion, that’s what motivates them to be involved in football to start with, so that’s a key claim that the leading figures in the game put across about themselves, about why  they’re involved. Partly because I’m sure they feel that they have to, because that gives them more credibility with fans, spectators, they’re trusted more, whereas if they presented themselves purely as focussed on the profitability of the clubs, of the leagues, on the commercial dimensions of the game, then there would be more criticism, I think, directed towards them by many supporter groups.

Does football unite or separate people?

It does both. In terms of uniting people, the clubs see themselves as representing communities of supporters. Initially that’s obviously arising at the local, potentially for some of the bigger clubs, at national level. Increasingly the bigger clubs have got these transnational types of fandom connected to them as well. We can see this at Barcelona here with the plaques in the stadium for the different penya groups, and there are more and more of these penya, these supporter clubs that have international connections that are from different countries. That serves obviously to unite these supporters around the club; a particular type of identity with a team like Barcelona, the projection of the club is ‘more than a club’, representing a further set of values and principles. So, many clubs project these types of collective identity for their supporters, and also it gives a sense for the supporters that they’re more than the sum of their parts, that they are more than just an agglomeration of individuals.

"Football unites and separates people equally" - Johan Cruyff Institute

Supporters of the three major Turkish soccer teams, from left, Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray * Photo: AP

In terms of dividing as well, well football in many ways is built on rivalries. Competitive ones are obviously the major derby matches, Real Madrid vs Barcelona, in my home nation, Celtic and Rangers is a key one, and there are many others across the world. Fandom is sometimes built around centres of who you are not, who you separate yourself from. In some other circumstances, we have cases obviously where football has been associated with forms of violence or intense rivalry, aggressive rivalries between different supporter groups, different communities, different nations. So there’s a sense in which the game also reflects those sorts of divisions. So in terms of unifying and dividing, it depends on the context in which the game’s played and the social relations between the different types of supporters and players who are involved in the game.

Fan violence is still a key issue for the industry. How do you think this problem should be tackled?

I think one thing to highlight would be that, over the last few decades, it has declined in terms of perhaps the scale of the phenomenon, the numbers of participants in self-identifying hooligan groups, for example, that said, incidents of violence do occur. Policing has intensified; there is more focus on security, especially proactive types of security. Stadiums have increasingly, since the late eighties, carried more and more CCTV systems and so on. Stewarding is more focussed on security as well. Segregation is more carefully planned and worked out between the different supporter groups. So policing has become more complex and multifaceted, shall we say, and more technological as well. And also compared to the mid-eighties, for example in England, there has been a little bit of a cultural shift away from the scale of the hooligan groups. You don’t have such large self-identifying hooligan subcultures at clubs, compared to those periods in the past, so that’s a key factor in the changes that have occurred.

Should the salary of football players be proportional to the business that they generate?

That would be the commercial logic. Looking, for example, also at transfer fees, these have obviously grown hugely in the last decade or so; that said, we can compare that with the turnover, the annual revenue that clubs have and look at the extent to which those transfer fees can be funded or are sustainable. You’re also looking at growing sources of income from television that especially the elite clubs have, and also in some cases, some clubs obviously have very rich owners that are able to invest or put money initially heavily into the club and that serves to build the club up, and initially the cost on players will be very high. Salaries, a similar point applies in relation to salaries, I think in the English context, for example, with the premier league clubs, it’s a bit more under control than it was in the early to mid-nineties. The clubs are looking a bit more carefully at the proportion of revenue that they spend on salary relative to annual turnover and keeping it below certainly 80% or if they can 75%, if they can keep it below that then that makes for a more sustainable situation. In the past, we had situations where clubs had salary expenditure that was even over 100% of their annual revenue, which was obviously not sustainable.

How has the way that fans engage with clubs changed? Is more a business than a sport?

In different ways certainly, so many fans still object to any attempt to label them as consumers, they still view themselves as supporters, as having almost more of a kind of citizen-type identity as opposed to a consumer identity in relation to the club. Also, we have had the emergence of fan movements in some nations that have sought to engage with clubs or even protest in relation to some actions that the clubs might have around issues on, for example, ticket prices or on the way in which the stewarding or policing is implemented. Fan movements are perhaps a bit more organised as well, in the transnational context, so we have the Football Supporters Europe network, which has been quite prominent and engages in dialogue with European football authorities. We didn’t have so much of that maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, so we have some changes there in terms of, shall we say the kind of political awareness and organisation of fan movements.

But I think for the majority of fans, they are also quite pragmatic with some of the changes that have taken place, that they can be critical of the commercialisation of the game in terms of, for example maybe player wages or the cost of tickets in some contexts and also the sense that the club needs to spend heavily on players in order to continue to compete effectively. But that said, the fans are also quite pragmatic in terms of awareness of the market context of the game and so therefore they realise that the club, in their view, has to compete in a market context and they want the club to succeed so they’re obviously keen for the club, if possible, to buy the most effective players or to be willing to pay the strongest salaries that they can in order to compete effectively as well. So there’s a kind of critical pragmatism with many fans on the commercial aspects of the game.


Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam uses a rich learning environment that fosters educational tools based on a student interaction model. We aim for a mix of students from sports and business sectors, which also enables students to share their unique experiences and learn from each other. Through ‘Cruyffian’ teaching methods the students will engage actively in creative challenges that require effort, commitment and intuitive thinking. Visit the web pages to find out more about these programs, which we deliver in English:

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