An Anthropological Look at the Stadium
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football stade
“There is no place in the world where man is happier than in a football stadium,” said Albert Camus.
This article has been auto-translated. View the original in French.

Places of celebration but also theaters of numerous excesses, sports stadiums occupy a special place in the collective imagination. While the subject of violence and incivility in and around football competitions resurfaces in France and beyond, what do these spaces tell us about ourselves?

The stadium is the symbol of sport, of equality in competition. With the rebirth of stadiums in the 19th Century, the best triumphed, whatever their social background. Could we have designed a stadium where serfs and knights clash? Obviously not. "Sport," writes Roger Chartier, introducing Norbert Elias, "is supposed to cancel, and not reproduce, the differences that cross and organize the social world."  [1] (It will undoubtedly take a century before this principle becomes reality). The same author – Roger Chartier – writes: "Stadiums (editor's note: but also gymnasiums, velodromes, ice rinks) are specific places which confine sports exercise and spectacle to reserved sites." [2]. Traditional games were played in non-specific spaces: the public square for calcio fiorentino, the field between two villages or portions of a village for soule or folk football. The first stadium was created in 1787 in England, in London, for the aristocratic practice of cricket; this is the Lord's Old Ground. For football it is the Bramall Lane Stadium in Sheffield, which holds a chronological prize claimed by many: 1855. "But it was with the inauguration of the Goodison Park stadium in Liverpool by the leaders of Everton in 1892 that "the construction fever began," explains sports historian Paul Dietschy, most often with wooden stands, which caused memorable disasters. And it was only in the 1910s that stadiums were built in England to match the popularity of football, a little later on the European continent, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Encourage working-class sports practice


Political powers and employers also encouraged the construction of stadiums to spread the practice of sport and divert workers from other forms of leisure including pubs and bistros. Thus, we read in L'Effort, the Berliet factory newspaper, in the aftermath of the First World War, that sport and the stadium are "the best reagents against disastrous distractions and particularly against cabaret" [3] . This role of the wealthy notables of the industrial world, their monumental ergetism, must be noted; they were the ones who provided localities with stadiums before, in France and Italy, these stadiums became municipal. Thus the first stadium of Juventus in Turin was founded by members of the club who contributed; San Siro in Milan was built in 1926 on the initiative of the industrialist Pirelli. In France, the Amédée Prouvost stadium, located in the heart of industrial establishments and workers' housing, was created by the business leader of combing (wool); it is there that the Roubaix-Tourcoing Olympic Club won the French championship in 1947. It is also necessary to underline, in this genealogy of stadiums, the role of fascism in Italy but also in Argentina which were architects of a vast diffusion of sport, symbol of virility.

One stadium, one identity


If the stadium symbolizes a civilization where it is the best, and not the best endowed, who wins, this monument can be urban or peri-urban and contribute to, even shape and internalize, a feeling of belonging. Julio Frydenberg [4] showed this very well in his history of football in Buenos Aires; in a city with rampant urban planning at the beginning of the 20th century, football clubs and their stadiums gave an identity to undifferentiated neighborhoods; simple neighborhood relationships have been replaced by those of members of the same barrio. This square monument ("English style" but the "English style" stadiums were previously elliptical) or elliptical (according to the Latin tradition) also lends itself, by its structure, to local or national propaganda. Hitler's use of the Berlin stadium during the 1936 Olympic Games and the Nazi project for a huge stadium that could accommodate 400,000 people shows the symbolic role that a stadium can play politically, or to mark an exceptional event. Welcoming a large audience in a closed monument, it is, more modestly, the ideal place for electoral meetings. Remember the gathering at the Charléty stadium in 1968 and, more recently, the meeting held there by Ségolène Royal in 2007. It can also be, because it symbolizes the identity of a city, the setting for an exceptional event, such as the visit of Pope Francis to the Marseille stadium in 2023. But the stadium is also a closed space; as such, it can be transformed into a place of imprisonment, as in Santiago de Chile, after Pinochet's coup d'état in September 1973; The Estadio Nacional then became a center of detention, torture and executions; today it is a place of memory.

Performance venues


Sports stadiums have become more specialized over time. The first English stadiums where only football was played had wooden stands where spectators gathered to watch the match standing. Then the stadiums, built in concrete, combined several disciplines. To take just one example, the Marseille stadium, founded in 1937, included, like most stadiums in France at that time, a cinder and a cycle track; the ash disappeared in 1971 and the cycle track was covered with stands called “advanced”. The stadium, once an omnisport venue (greyhound races, motorcycle races, athletics competitions, even pétanque) has lost its universal sporting vocation. It is solely devoted to football, or even occasionally to rugby, formerly 13-player, today exclusively 15-player, or to a few exceptional shows (famous singers, mass said by the Pope).

The structure of the stadium, whatever its shape, is particular. It is a “ring mass”, according to the expression of Elias Canetti [5] , a singular panoptic space, where we see (a practice, visibility is a constant principle of stadium architecture) everything by being seen (by other spectators). The spectacular demonstrations of the supporters who gather in the corners are seen by the other spectators and the stroke of genius of the most demonstrative supporters is to have looked away towards their stands while we come to watch a match. The spectacular achievements, exhibited at the start of the matches, testify to an aesthetic research which attracts the eye, even fascinates.

Social body and sense of community

stadium The stadium is also a space where a social body defeated in everyday life comes together, where a feeling of community and loyalty is expressed through song, where “ society (…) becomes aware of itself and poses itself   », to use the words of the great sociologist Émile Durkheim. This is where the national anthem is played during international matches in a stadium financed largely by the State, including by the State in its colonies or ex-colonies. The President of the Republic, in France, attends the Cup final, or even travels abroad to attend the World Cup final in which the national team is participating.

In increasingly staid societies, we can, at the stadium, relax and say bad words to insult the opponent. We meet our peers there for leisure; sociability finds its full measure there. It is also a space where a feeling of regional or national community is expressed but it is also a marginal space, where behaviors contrast with those of everyday life. What Norbert Elias says about sport also applies to the public in stadiums: “a controlled decontrolling of emotions”, this “decontrolling” crossing acceptable standards among certain supporters. It is also a space that we remember, for having experienced strong emotions there during an extraordinary match. It is a place of individual but also collective memory. It is still a space where one can anonymously express their political opinions or their regionalist or even independence demands.

Allow me to talk about the situation in Iran. If national sentiment is strongly anchored here, as demonstrated by the demonstrations of jubilation during the World Cup qualifiers in 1998, 2006, 2014 and 2018, 2022, this does not exclude the expression of identity demands. First of all, those of women who, among others, do not have access to the stadium. The recently elected President Raïssi, under pressure from FIFA, authorized women to attend football matches but this authorization was only implemented exceptionally. What remains the norm is the point of view of the marja'-e taqlid (sources of imitation) expressed in a statement published in the Official Journal of the Islamic Republic on 01/21/1394 (04/10/2015 ). The guide declared, “this act (editor’s note: allowing women access to stadiums) is prohibited and is an offense.” The marja'-e taqlid, consulted on this subject, gave the following reasons: on the one hand, the gaze of women" on the half-naked bodies of unknown men" is not allowed (harâm); on the other, “the prevailing atmosphere is not suitable for the presence of women” and this “mixture” would be “the source of numerous problems from a moral and social point of view” [6] . Apart from women (whose filmmaker Jafar Panahi in Offside mentions being banned from entering the stadium, the only solution for them being to be disguised as men), it is mainly the peripheral, disadvantaged and poorly endowed minorities, backed by states or autonomous regions populated by co-ethnics, who express their discontent and their aspirations, particularly in Azerbaijan, with its Trâktorsâzi and Shahrdâri Tabriz teams and in Khuzestân where Ahvâz, the capital, also hosts two teams: ' Esteghlâl-e Khuzestân and FC Fulâd. Trâktorsâzi is the popular emblem par excellence of Azeri nationalist demands, demands advocating greater cultural recognition and autonomy for Azerbaijan, or even, for some, separatism. "Âzarbâyjân is our land, Trâktor is our pride” sing the supporters who wear red outfits and flags and have called themselves the “red wolves”, the symbolic color and animal of the Turkish people. Over time Traktor has become the symbol of ethnic and regional demands, to which Azeri people as well as members of minorities who have no club to represent them refer. Let us turn to the side of Ahvâz . The matches provide the opportunity for demonstrations where supporters, encouraged by separatist or irredentist movements, claim, through their slogans and their dress, their Arab identity.

Reinforced social segregation?

stadium If the stadium celebrates free competition between athletes and teams, harmony in jubilation, social segregation reappears however when we take into account the financing of each (athletes and teams) and the distribution of spectators in the stadium. Without doubt, no prescriptive system assigns a particular location to each, as during the ancient games when Augustus had the Senate decree that "the first row of the benches should be reserved for senators, that the soldiers should be separated from the people and that married plebeians had to occupy special stands. To stick to the stadium in the contemporary world, two logics simultaneously shape sporting crowds: one reproduces, even accuses, the daily social order ; the other leaves  temporarily freeing himself from usual norms. The central stands are different from each other; in Marseille the Jean Bouin stand, to the west, is the most prestigious; the price of seats is the most expensive and there are senior executives, famous lawyers, bosses of commerce and industry; this platform is topped with boxes, where economic power holders, deserving executives, loyal customers or those who we wish to seduce meet; further down, the official platform reserved for political figures, club leaders and their guests; it is flanked by the press gallery, another great power. From Jean Bouin, we see from the front, before kick-off, the teams who will face each other. Previously, for the 1998 World Cup, this stand was the only one covered. To the east, the Ganay stand, where places are cheaper and where craftsmen, traders, small business owners, middle managers and an audience of connoisseurs, most of whom have played football in a club, gather. The bends were formerly called “the popular ones”; we watched the match standing; in Marseille we distinguished the northern bend, representing the northern districts of the city with a majority of workers (blue-collar workers) and the southern bend, representing the southern districts where mainly employees (white-collar workers) gathered. Today we should rename these “popular” people and call them “juveniles”. These are in fact the corners that the ultra supporters occupy and the distribution of the space of the corners is no longer a function of sociological logic but of seniority and the demonstrative strength of attachment to one's club. Thus, in Marseille, the South Winners bring together, in the majority, young supporters from the northern districts of the city where the headquarters of their association is located; nevertheless, they settled in the south turn, the hottest in the stadium. Originally in the north corner, the Ultras, the oldest group of young supporters occupy the center of the corner behind the goals. The South Winners camp on the upper floor. Below the bend, and in a marginal position, the has-beens of ultra supporterism, the vecchie guardie as they are called in Italy, gather.

future stadium

What will be the future of stadiums?

The situation in France, but also in Latin America, contrasts with what it is in other European countries. Here the stadiums are municipal property, with a few exceptions (Auxerre, Ajaccio, more recently Lyon). There, elsewhere in Europe (except in Italy which experiences a situation similar to that of France), the stadiums belong as a whole to the clubs. These clubs are owned, for the most part, by large economic groups or personalities. Before coming to the contemporary metamorphosis of stadiums, a remark: I remember the protests and conflicts, around fifty years ago, over the advertising boards around the pitch when the match was televised; Things have changed a lot since then! Stadiums, whatever their status, will become the center of commercial spaces that are built around them. Large stores are built at their doors, transforming this marginal space into a central space. Sports venues are preparing to become, with their ancillary facilities (shops, cinema rooms, facilities for children and adults: here and there you can now celebrate your birthday or wedding), “places of life”. In a recent study on the new Neuchâtel stadium in Switzerland, the author reports on these new exterior developments which integrate the stadium into a family leisure space. This metamorphosis is accompanied by a change of atmosphere in the stadiums. The songs and choreographies symbolizing the supporters' attachment to their team are gradually replaced by a more subdued atmosphere, orchestrated by recorded music and by a host with a warm voice. Echoing this transformation of the stadiums , they change their name whereas previously they evoked the city or the name of one of its heraults or founders, or even of a district of the city: Orange velodrome replaced the velodrome stadium of Marseille, Matmut Atlantique replaced Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux, Allianz Riviera the Ray stadium in Nice, Décathlon Arena replaced Grimonprez-Jooris and Pierre Mauroy in Lille and Villeneuve d'Ascq, and so on and much worse. To this verbal discredit is added a situational discredit : the stadiums which were often, as in Buenos Aires, inside the city, are peripheralized, pushed towards obscure suburbs.

This modification of the stadium goes hand in hand, more positively, with a devirilization of this space . The female audience at matches, like the growth and success of professional women's football, augurs well for stadiums where sporting passion will be better shared.

Overall, the stadium is an excellent observatory of society, of the values that bring it together, of the differences that shape it, but also of its excesses.

[1] R. Chartier, Foreword to N. Elias and E. Dunning, Sport and civilization (p. 15)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quoted by Patrick Fridenson , “ Automotive workers and sport ”, Proceedings of research in social sciences , 89, 1989, p. 50-62.

[4] In “ Espacio urbano y prática del fútbol 1900-1915 ” in Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes , Revista digital , nº 2, sept. 1996.

[5] E. Canetti, Mass and power , 1966 (reed.) (p.26).

[6] See Keyhan , 01/02/1394 (p.9).



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