Sociology of The World Cup – Goffmanian Dramaturgy and Narrative-Building

It is of course obvious to say that football games involve quite a bit of performance, the most obvious example being “diving” (which, in order to be successful, has to be accomplished while walking a fine line between convincing performance and overacting, which can draw negative sanctions) or something like this:

But this is a straightforward example of performance where the performer exercises control even though the outcome is uncertain and subject to review later through the media. On the video, it is clear that there is no elbow to face hit, but that is not available to the referee, performance successful, red card and expulsion ensue.

However, as Goffman always noted, there is always an audience to witness, and evaluate the performance, if not to reconstruct it and give it a meaning not necessarily intended by the performer. Take this example from Culture Visuelle on the visual construction of Frank Ribéry as wounded beast and as illustration of the status of the team as a whole:

These images together progressively create a narrative not just of a defeated body, although it is partly that, but also as that of a soon to be defeated team. The choice of Ribéry is not innocent either in that respect, not only because of his status as striker in the team but note the combination of “wounded animal” look but also the defeated masculinity postures (as opposed to the explosions of masculine exuberance on the field when a team scores).

The bestial aspect of Ribéry is something that came up not long before the World Cup as he was accused (and it’s apparently true) of having a persistence relationship with an underage prostitute, something in contrast with his image of converted Muslim observing all the restraints of that religion (and failing at that too, obviously). Maybe the young woman will be blamed for Ribery’s (and France’s) poor performance or maybe media exposure of sexual prowess will be blamed.

Finally, it is not hard to see the performance aspect of the latest shenanigans with the French team. Think of it as a Goffmanian tragedy in three acts:

Act one: star player insults head coach, but out of sight, during half-time, in the locker room. So, this was leaked to the press by someone on the team. A backstage action all of a sudden becomes major frontstage drama. As a result, said head coach fires player and send him home.

Act two, scene one: the players refuse to train as collective revolt for the dismissal of their colleague.

Act two, scene two: team’s physical trainer is seen, first almost coming to blows with one player, then walking away, throwing away his chronometer.

Act two, scene three: the players and head coach retire to the bus, head coach comes out and reads to the media a statement prepared by the players.

Act two, scene four: bus leaves, leaving the coach behind, deliberately. Federation official resigns in disgust.

What is then supposed to be a backstage even (even though the media and supporters are allowed to watch) becomes frontstage performance and exercise in presentation of self (unified team versus Federation authorities as represented by the coaches and trainers).

Act three will be what happens at the game on Tuesday, potential redemption or final collective humiliation.

There is a lot going on here in terms of power play and status signal (the players deliberately humiliate and disrespect their head coach but take the time to interact with the fans).

As noted by Philippe Tetart, this will also mark the closing of a narrative started with 1998 victory and its over-the top celebration coming to a close in 2010.

It really does sound like a Greek tragedy where hubris and transgressions (Henry’s hand and Anelka’s insult) come back to haunt the transgressors and lead to humiliating defeat and the different actors are certainly positioning themselves for the calls to account that are sure to come.

What has turned this performance into something that has been largely condemned is that it violates norms related to what a team means (solidarity, sticking together, in-group). Conflict may erupt in the locker rooms but this is backstage stuff that the audience is never supposed to see. And this is on top of a poor public performance. One can excuse backstage messes when frontstage performance is outstanding or even when frontstage performance is questionable (only McEnroe could behave as he did because he was one of the best players, any other schmock doing the same would be seen as just a jerk) but the results are there (“the price to pay”). And this is certainly not the case here.

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