Rooting for a team isn't about sports—it's actually about relationship-building.
It's been more than 15 years since Alex Paz moved to the U.S. But since then, if he could help it, Paz—who was born in a small town in Galicia, Spain—has never missed any of the Spanish national team's soccer games. Be it an international friendly against Venezuela or the World Cup Final against The Netherlands, Paz has been there, albeit at a distance, cheering his home team
"It's about a national identity," said Paz, speaking to me on Saturday at Smithfield, a new soccer bar in midtown Manhattan. "I feel even more Spanish when I'm watching soccer."
Paz, 43, a New Jersey resident, made the trip across the Hudson to Smithfield with a couple of Spanish friends to watch his team play France in the quarterfinals of the Euro Cup. For those 90 minutes, Paz could have easily felt like he was back in Spain. There was red everywhere. There were girls with the colors of the national flag painted on their faces. And there was an intrinsic bonhomie that gave the occasion a special edge.
"Here in New York, you walk the streets, and you see people with Spanish shirts on. It just feels terrific," said Paz. "There is no greater bond than sport, particularly soccer." In the past, the Spanish national team has been known for its lack of unity. But in 2008 when it won the European championship in Austria and Switzerland, Spain, perhaps, felt one of its earliest senses of a strong national accord. "There are now three Basque players in the national team," said Paz, "They play at their best when they put on the Spain shirt. It brings the different regions of the country together, and I just feel really privileged watching the team."
Trying to rationalize fandom can be a complicated, even futile process. But studies by psychologists have shown that identifying yourself with a sports team can have profound implications. According to Daniel L. Wann, a professor at Murray State University, and a pioneer in the field of sports psychology, the more passionate your fandom, the more positive the impact is on your psychological health. Based on surveys of American sports fans over more than two decades, Wann has categorized fans in relation to the degree to which they consider their team an extension of themselves. He describes the more ardent fans, the ones who consider their team to be an important part of their lives, as "highly identified" fans, and the ones who follow their team more loosely, with a sense of detachment, as "weakly identified" fans. He says, in the case of the highly identified fans, the social connections that are formed through their fandom—the camaraderie that comes out of following games with a group of people—plays a significant and positive role in their lives.
MORE ON SOCCER
He uses the example of fans of the St. Louis Cardinals who live in St. Louis and surrounding communities where it's easy to find other supporters. "Many individuals wear Cardinal apparel, discuss the team in casual conversation, and structure their day around consumption of the team (e.g., going to games, watching the team on television, etc.)," Wann wrote in a 2006 paper. "In environments such as this, fans of a local team can feel part of something grander than the self. They gain vital connections to others in their community and a feeling of camaraderie."
But supporting your national team goes beyond the traditional contours of fandom, and in many ways transcends sport. Supporters—both highly identified and weakly identified ones—may only come together for short periods (as is the case during a World Cup or a European championship), but an inherent feeling of nationalism helps them find a strong, common bond.
In his book How Soccer Explains The World, Franklin Foer argued that nationalism as evoked by soccer fandom can play a positive role in society. "Humans crave identifying with a group," Foer wrote. "It is an unavoidable, immemorial, hardwired instinct. Since modern life has knocked the family and tribe from their central positions, the nation has become the only viable vessel for this impulse. To deny this craving is to deny human nature and human dignity."