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‘We have never chosen to be Swedish’ - usage of national identity in the football context

Katarzyna Herd

My PhD project in ethnology focuses on producing history in Swedish football clubs. I view football as a socially constructed space with its own logic that uses references from other social dimensions in order to create meaningful connections and identities. Football is also specific because it sustains actions that would be questionable outside of it. This is because of the sense-making processes that one can observe there. While doing fieldwork I came across numerous accounts involving references to history shared by Sweden and Denmark. That history was mostly occurring in the Öresund region.

Although once disputed, the territory of Skåne has belonged to Sweden for centuries. However, a play of identity-building including Sweden, Denmark and Skåne remain firmly established in football fandom connected to the clubs in the Swedish leagues.

Football is often described in terms of identity-building, belonging, regional pride and even regional patriotism. What follows is also exclusion and opposition, as rivalry is constructed and ‘us vs. them’ logic dominates narratives surrounding football clubs. There is a need for differentiation. In Sweden, a category of national identity is used to mark ‘the other’ and this is applied to the Skåne region. Supporters use the categories of Danish/Swedish in order to construct identities and to insult their opponents, in an ongoing process of producing ‘us vs. them’ relationship.

Helsingborg supporters during a match in 2016 with Skåne flags
Helsingborg supporters during a match 2016. Skåne flags were quite dominant. Malmö FF’s supporters often come to games with them too. Helsingborg played against AIK from Stockholm on that day, which might have caused more presence of the regional colours.

Skåne used to be a Danish province but it was annexed by Sweden in 17th century. 350 years later football supporters use this reference against each other. It is visible in the material framing surrounding matches. Fans of two big teams from Skåne differentiate themselves from the rest of Sweden by the use of specific artefacts. In contrast to the Stockholm teams that wave Swedish flags; teams from Malmö FF (MFF) and Helsingborgs IF (HIF) often have Skåne colours. MFF supporters also have a chant that praises their region, and it includes words ‘We have never chosen to be Swedish/ Free Skåne from Svea state' (Vi hade aldrig velat va svenskar/Befria Skåne från Svea-rikeland). There is a video depicting them singing it loudly and jumping at Stockholm central station in 2008. It is a mock-version of a separatist tendency performed in a specific context.

Yet, the reference to the historical conflict between the two countries is not only used to enhance the clubs from the region. When discussing football in Stockholm, I would encounter statements referring to Skåne as ‘northern Denmark’, or that people there basically speak Danish so one cannot understand them. The usual duality of the capital vs. the rest of the country has been further coloured with a recollection of a military conflict that resulted in making Skåne a Swedish province.

Sprayed message on wall
The sprayed message near a place of historical and cultural heritage, Brahehus, brings back the idea of conflict between Sweden and Denmark, reworking it into ‘us vs. them’ identity questions.

The ‘mock-war’ of ‘mock-rebellion’ took form of a sprayed words in a tunnel leading to Brahehus – ruins of 17th century castle located almost exactly half way between Malmö and Stockholm. The picture, sent to me by a friend, depicts words Ultras Malmø, a supporter group affiliated with Malmö FF, and it is spelled with a Danish letter ø, which is not present in the Swedish alphabet. An extra layer is added by a small text on a white square above, with an arrow pointing downwards. It says ‘Danskjävlar’ – Danish bastards. The insult is directed towards a group from Malmö, as both adversaries accept the ‘national’ line of discussion.

MFF fans can exclude themselves, provide distance through the use of historical developments in the Öresund region. On the other hand, clubs in the rest of Sweden can do the same – exclude and mock MFF because of the regional history. However, both processes meet in establishing common sense from the same point of reference. There needs to be mutual understanding of symbols. It can be lifted as a positive form of differentiation (for Skåne clubs) or as a hindrance (when used by other Swedish clubs) but the context needs to be preserved as a valuable source of references for building identities. Although contradictory, they meet on the common ground of finding the past useful for marking the present circumstances, and engaging in captivating discussion on evaluating the by-gone through modern football engagement.



Fotografi på Katarzyna Herd stående på läktaren till en fotbollsplan

Katarzyna Herd är doktorand i etnologi vid Institutionen för kulturvetenskaper, Lunds universitet.

Avhandlingsprojektet handlar om att undersöka vardagsanvändning av historiska referenser hos, och i relation till, några svenska fotbollsklubbar. 

katarzyna [dot] herd [at] kultur [dot] lu [dot] se