Interview with the Sport Sociologist Dino Numerato

Football fans are also political players, says Dino Numerato, a sports sociologist

With Dino Numerato, the Head of the Department of Sociology of the Institute of Sociological Studies of FSV, on sociology of sports, his new book and current events at the Department of Sociology.

Dino Numerato

You specialize in sociology of sports. It feels a bit like a dream come true for someone who does the sports in his spare time and wants to dedicate his work to them and in the academic environment at best.

That was not completely my case. I’ve always enjoyed sports, but honestly - I could never imagine studying it. Surely you know the feeling - once a person begins to study something that he has treasured so far like a hobby, he starts questioning things that he took for granted, without problematizing them and becomes a little bit alienated from it (laughs).

So what brought you to this field?  

Actually, a coincidence. After completing my PhD degree, I applied for a job position at the Bocconi University in Milan. At that time the university hosted a European project focused on sport governance and on the social importance of sports. They were looking for someone with a doctoral degree in social sciences, who can speak Czech and English, can handle a qualitative methodology and is ideally interested in sports. And so I was for the first time introduced to the sociology of sports. Until then, I was mostly interested in sociology of the media and theoretical sociology.

What was your role in the project?

I was a Research Fellow in a five-member team that worked across Europe. I was in charge of the Czech Republic. My task was to find out how sports associations work in the Czech Republic and what social importance they have. Like my colleagues from abroad, I focused on sailing, handball and football environments. I grasped the things from a sociological perspective, which necessarily brings along a critical view. And so I managed to keep a positive attitude towards the sports (laughs).

What sport do you prefer?

Before attending the university, I had played football for a long time. Then I played futsal at the university. I then returned to football as part of the aforementioned research. I practically carried out participant observation; after about eight years, I returned to my home team for a while, it was playing the district championship.

You recently published a book on the phenomenon of football fans. How to write a book on the fans to attract readers?

This book is the output of my two-year project I conducted at Loughborough University in Great Britain. The research concerned the activism of football fans in the Czech Republic, England Italy and generally at European level. It's about the fans who are dissatisfied with how contemporary football works and they call for some changes in football. They’re concerned with transforming football culture and the conditions of fandom, but also with transforming society as such.

Transformation of the society? I have a deeply ingrained picture of a fan as a screaming hooligan on the stand.

The fan’s movement is fairly diverse and my book points to its complexity. To the fact, that football fan is not necessarily a hooligan, or a consumer, but also a citizen. On the stands you will find fans who often do not share the same ideologies and values, but they agree that they do not like increased surveillance at the stadiums or excessive security measures. They point out, for example, that such measures may in turn trigger increasingly more conflicts.

So what is their idea of how to solve this problem?

Many fans try to legalize pyrotechnics at the stadiums, but only in some form. Pyrotechnics are, after all, visually and marketingly interesting. And as many fans say, even if they do not necessarily like the word, pyrotechnics allow you to sell a football product. A monitored use of pyrotechnics occurs mainly in the Nordic countries, and the so-called supporter liaison officers, who link the club management with the fans through communication, have an important role to play in it. In Denmark, for example, they have developed safe candles, in Sweden the fans got together with the representatives of various institutions - the Ministry of Interior, Football Association, Swedish League and sponsors, etc. - and agreed that pyrotechnics could be used at the stadiums, but only under certain conditions. Similarly, a regulated handling of pyrotechnics is taking place in Norway. It is true that this would not be acceptable to many fans, especially in Southern European countries, because any attempt to overly “civilize” fans threatens the spontaneity they are defending.

What topics are still being addressed by football activists?

There is a wide range of topics. In the 1990s, in connection with the two tragedies at the stadiums in Brussels and Sheffield, the security measures at the stadiums completely changed - only the tickets for seats were introduced and the price of the tickets noticeably increased. The Premier League is founded, British football opens up to global markets and commercialization of football is being enhanced. Fan activists thus fight against social exclusion at the stadiums, overpriced tickets as well as against the ownership of the clubs by foreign tycoons who lack any relation to tradition, local communities and for whom football is a part of business. The fans feel that stadiums resemble theaters, because there are only tourists and wealthy people and the atmosphere is no longer spontaneous, fans are facing fines for violating the ban on standing, etc. This is what critical fans are trying to change. They are fighting for reducing the ticket prices or for the so-called safe-standing sectors, existing for example in Germany. In England, the fans seek this, too even through lobbying in the parliament. The fandom thus turns into a political issue as well. Selected groups of fans also open non-football, more serious social issues such as homophobia or racism.

A big issue in football that comes to mind of a sports outsider like myself, is corruption. Do the football activists address it in any way?

Yes. The fans, for example, were part of global initiatives pushing FIFA to fight with corruption. They use lobbying at potentially critical officials, politicians, but also through sponsors. For example, they contacted them about not sponsoring the world championship, as it damages their reputation. An issue of corruption shows, among others, that the processes are very complex and can not be seen through the simplistic black and white lenses that see socially sensitive fans on the one hand and a necessarily harmful business on the other. You can also see on this example that fan activism is not just about putting up banners and singing choruses at the stadiums. And I‘m trying to understand in my book what all the different opposition activities in football mean for the football culture and whether football is somehow changing.

You’ve been in the position of the Head of the Department of Sociology for two and a half years. Were you at the department before or did you come to a new environment?

I applied for the job from the outside and started to lead an environment I hadn’t known before. Since 2006, I worked in many research positions, that's why I knew quite well how research worked, but I did not know the everyday life of the department. I certainly had to find my way in teaching. Teaching allows me to take a step back when looking at certain things, to think about what is important in the given matter, what things I should teach, and especially why to teach them.

What direction should the department follow to evolve?

I certainly wanted to internationalize the department, which I think is working out. I have worked at three universities abroad - at Bocconi University in Milan, at La Sapienza University in Rome and the last two years before my arrival in Prague at Loughborough University in the UK. So I could see how well-known foreign workplaces work and it was a great challenge for me to bring some good experience over to the department. There’s a whole lot of the foreign inspiration at the department, whether thanks to the contacts of many colleagues, or to a previously created position named after Professor Miloslav Petrusek who stood at the foundation of the Faculty of Social Sciences. It’s called Petrusek Chair and it is a certain commitment of the institute‘s leadership to offer Professor Petrusek‘s chair to a significant sociological personality from abroad.

What events would you like to invite the students to in the course of this academic year?

We organize two cycles of seminars. After aking my position, I revived a cycle of seminars organized by the Department of Sociology and held in Jinonice, where our members, including PhD students, present their work. It is held once a month usually on Wednesdays and is open to the general public. Besides, we participate in the cycle of “Sociological Seminars” held on Thursdays in cooperation with the Sociological Institute, to which we invite interesting domestic and foreign guests. And I can not forget the cycle of lectures called “Sociological Evenings” organized by our graduates and inviting interesting personalities from the field of sociology.

What do you think is the greatest success during your functioning at the department?

As far as research is concerned, it is definitely the participation in two European projects funded within the Horizon 2020 framework, in which our department is involved as a partner within broader consortia. As far as teaching is concerned, I am happy about the successful completion of the accreditation of the new MA program of Society, Communication and Media. Moreover, in addition to the traditionally strong pillars in our offer of undergraduate programs, Sociology and Social Policy and Sociology and Social Anthropology, the applicants will be able to apply for a new undergraduate program of Sociology with the specialization in the Studies of Contemporary Societies from the spring. This new program will be strongly directed at such current topics as globalization, digitalization of contemporary societies, migration, social inequality, or gender. In other words, building on the inspiration from abroad we offer a study that is theme- and issue-oriented and responds to the demand from our students, who call for a greater connection between theory and practice. I would like to emphasize that the new program does not undermine our traditionally existing undergraduate study programs, that link sociology with social policy and social anthropology, that is with the study fields that have continuity also in the Master’s programs. In the case of social anthropology, this continuity may be less visible, since it is currently only provided within one of the specializations of a Master's degree in sociology. Still I am convinced that we offer the teaching of social anthropology at least in a comparable quality to such places where anthropology forms a separate study program.

Thank you for the interview.

The interview was led by Jakub Říman, spokesperson of FSV UK (the interview was translated from original version in Czech language)