Why is every football audience always separate

Bundesliga: Society's playing field

Lars Riedl

After studying sociology (diploma) at Bielefeld University, Dr. Lars Riedl works as a research assistant in the sports science department at Bielefeld University. He is currently the professor for sports sociology at the University of Paderborn. His main research interests are in the areas of audience research, top-class sport, sport organizations as well as sport and new media.

The social success of football

Professionalization, globalization, eventization - the image of football has changed since 1873. Why are the media, business and politics interested in the football audience? What, in turn, does football offer its fans and how indispensable is it for society?

On the first day of the new Bundesliga season 1963/1964, 1. FC Saarbrücken and 1. FC Köln face each other on August 24, 1963 in the Ludwigspark in Saarbrücken. Cologne wins the game 2-0. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)


There is no doubt that professional football can be described as a fascination of modern society, because the "most beautiful minor matter in the world" continues to cast its spell on the masses. The Bundesliga games attract around 400,000 people to the stadiums every week. Over 45 million German citizens are fans of a football club [1]. And top events, such as the soccer world championship, even take place in front of a world audience of billions. Football dominates sports coverage in the media and is a significant economic factor. In the 2012/13 season alone, the 18 Bundesliga clubs again achieved record sales of more than two billion euros [2]. For some years now, football has even received increasing attention in literature and science.

It can therefore be said that football has enormous social relevance and has become an indispensable cultural asset. But how can this success be explained? In the following, the relationship between football and society is analyzed from a sociological perspective.



  • It discusses the structural features that characterize football as a sport in modern society.
  • The connection between football and the audience is examined.
  • The relationship between football and the social sub-areas of mass media, economy and politics is explained.
  • Finally, the social (in) dispensability of football is shown.

Football as a sport in modern society

When asked about the origin of football, the literature often points out that football is almost as old as humanity itself. Football-like games from different eras and different regions of the world serve as evidence for this: For example, tsu-chu was played in China as early as the second century before the birth of Christ; In antiquity, Episkyros was enjoyed in Greece and Harpastum in Rome; At the time of the Renaissance, the game of Calcio was very popular in Florence. In addition, the Kalagut game of the Inuit, the Russian Lapta, the Japanese Kemari and the Swiss Hornussen are cited as football-like games of the past [3]. However, it is controversial to what extent these forms of play can actually be considered forerunners of football.

A clear answer can, however, be given to the question of when and where football has developed into a sport in modern society. This happened in 19th century England. As early as the end of the Middle Ages there were the Folk Games, which can be viewed as early forms of football (as well as rugby). These games were mostly competitions between two villages or city districts. The idea of ​​the game was to bring a ball-like object into a certain target area in the opponent's area. The only regionally known games were often based on only a few, hardly formalized and mostly only verbally handed down rules. For example, the playing field, the playing time and the number of participants were hardly limited and a clear separation of participants and spectators was unusual [4].

A central characteristic feature of these folk games was the high level of aggressiveness and physical violence. Often there were also tumults and riots that went beyond the game. Therefore, these folk games were often banned by the respective authorities, so that this folk culture almost disappeared in the following centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, football found its way increasingly into the so-called public schools. Contrary to what their name suggests, these were not public, but private institutions and were mainly visited by the upper class pupils. Football helped to discipline and channel the often brutal and ruthless power and prestige struggles among the schoolchildren on the basis of competitive thinking and the idea of ​​fair play.

The birth of modern football

The photo from April 1st, 1874 shows the players of the Queens Park football club in Glasgow. Queens Park F.C. was founded in 1867 and was responsible for the inclusion of battens on soccer goals, free kicks and halftime in the rulebook. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The hour of birth of modern football can be cited as October 23, 1863, because on this day the Football Association (FA) was founded at a meeting of representatives of football teams from various public schools as well as the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford in the Freemasons Tavern in London. The aim of the meeting was to create a uniform set of rules and a decision-making body for disputes for the increasingly popular competitions between schools [5].

So an organization was founded whose organizational purpose was exclusively aimed at the sport of football. It defined the rules of the sport, certain spatial and temporal restrictions on the course of the game, separated the role of the spectator from that of the player, introduced the referee into the game as an intervening third party, subjected the players' potential for aggression to social control, sanctioned rule violations and rewarded physical activities and tactical skills instead of violence and strength [6].

Structural features of modern sport

With this meeting in London in October 1863, key structural features of modern sport were introduced to football. These include: the differentiation from other contexts of meaning, the establishment of an independent system logic, a coordinated structure formation and the emergence of organizations.

Football becomes an end in itself

In premodern societies, many areas of activity, such as working, educating, ruling, judging, believing, healing, as well as moving and playing, were mixed with one another. In the transition to a modern, functionally differentiated society, these areas have increasingly separated from each other and differentiated into independent social subsystems, such as the economic system, the educational system, the political system, the legal system, the religious system and the health system.

Sport also emerged by breaking away from various areas of activity in which movement, physical performance or competition played a role, such as in cultic and ritual acts as well as in the areas of (physical) education, play and predominantly that Amusements and pastimes reserved for the nobility. In the sports system of modern society, it is now about the provision of physical performance, which is performed for the sake of performance, i.e. as an end in itself [7].

As shown, football differentiated itself from the context of public schools; it was no longer just a means to the purpose of education, but became an independent sphere of activity. Because competition systems emerged in which physical performance was provided exclusively for the purpose of sporting success - regardless of whether the players would also become good students or even better people

Performance and competitive thinking prevail as central principles of action

The differentiation of social subsystems goes hand in hand with the establishment of independent system logics (according to which criteria a system functions), to which all actions in that subsystem are then oriented. In top-class sport, it is about permanent physical performance and constant performance comparisons. Those who operate in the sports system want to achieve and improve their performance, they want to defeat their opponents and avoid their own defeat. In no other social sub-system is the performance principle to be found in such a pure culture: The fastest wins the hundred meter run, the strongest wins the weightlifting, the javelin is won by the one who throws the furthest. And the football game is won by the team that scores the most goals.

The logic of the sports system is autonomous and strictly self-referential, that is, no non-sports criteria are included in the evaluation of athletic performance. It doesn't matter whether a sprinter is beautiful, a weightlifter rich, a javelin thrower has a political office or a particularly large number of players in a team have high school diplomas. With the establishment of national and international competitions outside of school lessons by the FA, it became possible for the performance and competitiveness of sport to establish itself in football and for this self-referential logic to prevail.

The Football Association sets uniform rules

1920s: Presentation of the team line-up before the game 1.FC Nürnberg against TSV 1860 Munich by means of a moving board. (& copy imago / Otto Krschak)

The system logics of the social subsystems are specified by appropriate structures. The performance and comparison in sport, the allocation of victory and defeat are only possible on the basis of the rules specific to the sport. Because these determine which services can be considered better, which actions are allowed and which are prohibited, such as foul play or doping. So you determine the space of possible actions. Building on this, there is another structural level, namely that of tactics and movement techniques, which dictate how services can be provided.

In this respect, the meeting on October 23, 1863 in London was of enormous importance for football. The determination and standardization of the football rules by the FA was a central step towards differentiating football, because football acquired the characteristic structures that have largely determined its game idea and appearance to this day. On the other hand, this was a necessary prerequisite for the spread of football in the world, because this was the only way to make competitions possible without having to renegotiate rules and ultimately the sport as a whole.