Fields of Play, Borders at Work? Tracing Separatism and Cosmopolitanism on the Soccer Pitch

Authors: James Baker*, University of Nebraska Omaha
Topics: Political Geography, Cultural Geography, Immigration/Transnationalism
Keywords: borders, soccer, nationalism, secession, cosmopolitanism, territory, ethnicity, catalonia, iran, scotland, brexit
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 5:00 PM
Room: Studio 6, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper reconsiders the intersections of soccer, protest, and the (re)emergence of nationalism in 21st century territorial politics. Freighted with discourses manifesting local national identity, political ideology, and social imaginaries, the soccer pitch is a means and a geography, as Szabo (2013) notes, “for a nationality in its minority context to dissociate from the majority-controlled state.” This split opens a new field of play for national minorities to establish border claims – rhetorical and political acts which, in local contexts of ethnic oppression or ethno-nationalist claims to independence, spring open the “territorial trap” (Agnew, 1994) of the sovereign nation-state. While the inflammatory role of nationalism in 20th century “soccer wars” has received wide consideration in popular and academic press (Kapucsinski 1990; Sack and Suster 2000), we reassess the role of soccer in challenging spaces of separatism. We analyze three cases: the 2015 Scottish independence referendum, “El Clasico” derby matches between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid leading up to the contentious 2017 Catalan independence vote, and recent banners reading “South Azerbaijan is not Iran” seen in Tabriz, Iran during 2013 AFC Champions League matches. We investigate how these subversive geographies challenge separatism by presenting imminent examples of what Walter Mignolo (2000) terms “border thinking” on the path to a new, postnational cosmopolitanism. Yet, in light of the present “geopolitical precarity” (Liebert 2017) and reentrenchment of Western hegemonic territorial imaginaries, we are left with a troubling question: how do these fields of play (de)legitimatize struggles to ‘stateify’ ethno-nationalist movements?

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