What the World Cup has taught us about cultural understanding and fandom

Now that the World Cup is over, marketers’ attention is shifting to the next major international football tournament – Euro 2020, while domestic teams will be eyeing up the opportunity for international expansion.

International tournaments like the World Cup are interesting from a cultural understanding perspective. As fans come together in the stadiums, squares and bars of the host nation, you glean a lot about the core culture of each country from the behaviours and rituals of their travelling fans.

In this article, we’ll take a look at three very different countries – Russia, Japan and England, and apply a cultural lens to the World Cup to see what we can learn about the underlying cultural values and drivers that characterise their fans.

 

Russia – a nation of passionate and hospitable fans

Politics and sport have historically been closely linked in Russia, particularly during the Soviet era. Sport has often been used as a propaganda tool to promote ideology. As a result, there is a strong feeling of national pride amongst Russian fans.

The intensity that has been long associated with Russian sport means that for football in particular, Russian fans have a love/hate relationship with it. The word “fan” in Russian actually translates as “to be sick for” and this reflective of how a lot of Russians view their national team. Their former coach Guus Hiddink once said that “Russia can beat anyone, but also lose to anyone!” Even at their own World Cup, one of the most common jokes circulating amongst the Russian fans prior to their opening victory against Saudi Arabia was “Who are you going to support after the group stages?”

The Russian national team eventually responded to the criticism of their own fans by remaining in the competition until the quarter finals, but their legacy will forever be how they defied the negative stereotypes of hooliganism and nationalism that they’ve always struggled to shake off.

Hospitality is a core element of Russian culture and is what the World Cup 2018 CEO Alexey Sorokin stated as being “something we have in our blood.” During the World Cup, travelling fans painted a welcoming picture of Russian fans, who went out of their way to give free lifts to those stranded, voluntarily offering directions and tips for sightseeing – as well as jumping in to photo-bomb pictures these fans were taking. This image is in stark contrast to the cold exterior travelling fans were expecting ahead of the World Cup – something which Putin summed up at the end of the competition when he said “millions [of fans] changed their opinion about our country and [that] is a great result too.”

 

 England – fans with high hopes and crushed dreams

Sport is inherent to English culture. Many sports originated in England and this has cultivated a nation of passionate sports fans, particularly football. At club level, football fans in particular are known for the lengths they will go to support their local team, be that via money spent, distance travelled, or social factors such as sacrificing relationships.

It is a different picture at an international level as England fans typically associate with a cycle of initial high expectations followed by bitter disappointment once the national team crash out of a tournament in the early stages. This is perfectly summed up by the Baddiel and Skinner anthem of 1996, which captures both the joy and pain with the lyrics “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before, they just know, they’re so sure that England’s gonna, throw it away, gonna blow it away.”

We can trace this mentality back to England’s imperial and military past, which has cultivated a sense of self-importance and entitlement due to England’s once superior position in the world. The reality that England rarely dominate any sport on an international level means that English fans often grapple with their national identity – they want to believe they can achieve greatness, even if they often don’t!

Despite being a nation with high sporting expectations, many English football fans struggle with how much patriotism to display due to negative connotations with nationalism. You only have to watch the lacklustre renditions of the national anthem at the World Cup, or hear about the surplus of unsold patriotic merchandise to understand this reluctance.

However, with England having a more humble journey to the Semi Final in this year’s World Cup and the most ethnically diverse squad to date, more English people have been comfortable to express their patriotism. At a time of turbulent Brexit negotiations, the country has been unified by subtle pride, optimism and the hope that “it’s coming home”.

 

Japan – fans with a deep appreciation for loyalty and respect

Sporting fandom in Japan can be closely linked to the importance of loyalty and corporate culture. It is not uncommon for Japanese workers to stay at a company for their entire working lives and in some unfortunate cases, the sacrifices they make can often to lead to death from overwork, or ‘Karōshi’. Loyalty is just as important when it comes to sport in Japan – many baseball teams in Japan are owned by big corporations and players rarely transfer between teams.

Another important aspect of Japanese culture is saving face and showing respect – these values are strongly upheld by sport in Japan. For example, it is uncommon to swear and utter profanities during sporting events, even when a poor decision is made by the referee or linesman. In fact, there are very few swear words in the Japanese language that can be used to express frustration during a match. Similarly, visiting teams are allowed to bat in peace during baseball matches as it is frowned upon to heckle the opposing team in Japanese sporting culture.

At the World Cup, the Japanese team may have crashed out in a defeat to Belgium in the last 16, but the respectful manner of their team and fans left a lasting positive legacy behind. Throughout the tournament, the fans, armed with their own bin bags, stayed behind to collect their rubbish from the stands. Similarly, following the defeat against Belgium, the Japanese national team left their dressing room immaculate and left a thank you note in Russian for the host nation.

One of Japan’s defenders Maya Yoshida was quoted as saying “Of course it is not just the national team who represent Japan, but the fans in Russia also, so to be praised by the whole world, we are very proud of this”

We’re currently working with an English Premier League football team on their international fan development strategy. The challenge here is that the EPL is a major British export, so how do clubs attract committed international fans when they are hundreds of miles away from the club’s heartland and haven’t been born into generations of supporters. Using cultural insights to understand what football fandom means in their key markets, we’re able to help our client develop emotionally engaging and culturally-relevant content, merchandise and events that create connections and deepen loyalty. After all, fans are earned, not conquered.

The Culture & Trends team at Join the Dots delivers cultural clarity to help our clients make better business decisions in their local markets – get in touch for more information on how we can help you solve your next global business challenge.


Kate Skivington

 

 

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