Fans at a match between the Grasshoppers and FCZ, 1971.
Fans at a match between the Grasshoppers and FCZ, 1971. ETH-Bibliothek / Comet Photo AG

The changing face of football fandom

What a party! Chanting fans, fireworks, cheering and applause coalesce in a sea of flags – for many people, these scenes are rowdy, intimidating, uncivilised and uncouth. For others this is the highest of highs, an eruption of fan euphoria representing a cultural phenomenon that is now widespread, but about which very little is known.

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker is a sports historian, head of Swiss Sports History and co-director of the FCZ Museum.

In stadiums throughout Switzerland, there’s a lot of solidarity on display. Choreographed presentations pay homage to individual players, stage-manage the fan presence or commemorate past games. Whether the grounds are half-empty or packed to the rafters, fan chants fill the air, flags are waved wildly, and placards and banners are draped over the low walls of the stadium sections. But how did all this actually come about? A look back at the history of Swiss fan culture shows there’s been a remarkable change since the early days of football fandom.

From Sunday best to denim vest

Football has always pulled in the crowds. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, matches were played in front of tens of thousands of people. In those days the game was considered proletarian and not part of high culture, but this has changed significantly over time. The change in fan culture can also be traced through the history of the clothing, the cultural offerings and other fan activities.
In suit and tie: spectators at a football match around 1962.
In suit and tie: spectators at a football match around 1962. Swiss National Museum
Up until the 1960s, photographs from football matches show audiences were mostly made up of men. They’re neatly dressed in hats and suit jackets; whether manual workers, office clerks or company managers, they usually wore their Sunday best when they went to a football game. There was little singing, there were shouts of encouragement at specific points of the game, and occasionally individual players were cheered on. Nonetheless, even in those early days bottles were thrown and there were violent clashes, as can be seen from the match reports.
Football fan at a match between FC Zurich and Liverpool FC on 6 April 1977.
Football fan at a match between FC Zurich and Liverpool FC on 6 April 1977. ETH-Bibliothek / Comet Photo AG
From the late 1960s onwards, the influence of England fans began to have an impact. With international matches being played more regularly, English hooligans were now coming over to the continent. Their propensity to violence, consumption of alcohol and fan chanting were adopted in the stadiums of Switzerland. Many fans also adapted their clothing to the new style. The casual hooligan was born. This individual dressed in expensive brands like Lacoste, Sergio Tacchini and Adidas – labels that are still popular among fans today. There were also vest-wearers, fans who wore denim vests with patches sewn on to them proclaiming their own club affiliation or their antipathy towards other clubs. Nowadays this fan type is only seen in larger German cities; they’ve virtually disappeared in Switzerland. Culturally, the hooligans and the vest-wearers had little to offer. Attendance at soccer games tended to be modest.
Jacket of a Schalke 04 fan. The patches mocking opposing teams, their fans or players are a typical feature.
Jacket of a Schalke 04 fan. The patches mocking opposing teams, their fans or players are a typical feature. Keystone / Caro / Lueger
It was at this point that “two-pole banners” – banners or placards stretched between two poles – emblazoned with slogans or emblems in support of the holders’ team began to appear. The early chants also owe a debt to the English influence.
Liverpool FC supporters during the game against FC Zurich on 6 April 1977.
Liverpool FC supporters during the game against FC Zurich on 6 April 1977. ETH-Bibliothek / Comet Photo AG

The ultras come, bringing culture

By the mid-1990s football games were now shown in colour on TV, but more importantly, colour had come to the stadium as well. The ultras, a diehard fan group that had for many years been active in Italy and South America, were now role models for many football fans. This is also linked to the sociological composition of the fan groupings in the stands, which were characterised by Italian, South American and also ex-Yugoslav fans. They knew the ultras culture from their home countries or from their parents. A new aspect was that the fan chants were now sung independently of the course of play; they had more verses and started to be more tuneful. Songs from pop music or popular culture were adopted and customised. But the teams were also supported by pyrotechnics, mostly smoke bombs and flares. These stunts were admired and celebrated in the media for a long time, and it was only in the preliminary stages of the 2008 European Championships in Switzerland that they started to be condemned and more heavily criminalised.
A study by the University of Neuchâtel shows that militant football fans are not out for violence; they’re there for the emotions. SRF Tagesschau piece on the subject of “Ultras”, 6 May 2008 (in German). SRF
The choreographed displays that are part of ultras culture, however, are quite spectacular. The end product of hours of work, and performed only for a few minutes before the game, these displays often represent key moments in the club’s history. These activities, and their tireless organisation, pass on the club’s history to future generations and strengthen the club’s identity. In the early days, the different ultras groups exchanged letters and sent each other photographs. The Italian, Croatian and South American fans were the main role models. But the ultras stands in Basel, Zurich and sometimes other Swiss cities are themselves now considered worthy of imitation, and are also widely recognised abroad. Images of the spectacular choreographies are distributed in seconds via social media.
Choreography of FC St Gallen fans in a game against BSC Young Boys. YouTube / Michael Weigl

Outside the stadiums

The fan groups in the stands in Switzerland are a mirror of society, with all its positive and negative aspects. Within these jubilant mobs of like-minded supporters, which have the feel of huge youth clubs, young and old alike let off steam: graphic designers, lawyers, the unemployed, teachers, tradesmen, painters and many more. But this cultural phenomenon goes much further than the stadium. Numerous fan pubs and bars have become established as venues for musical competitions such as rap battles, rock concerts, cross-cultural workshops and quiz nights. But these places also have a strong social integration function, because the common denominator is the fans’ own club and any other affiliations are irrelevant. Pop bands make their own recordings of the songs from the terraces and disseminate them throughout the country but, by the same token, songs by bands or hip-hop groups are also incorporated into the chants. With the rise of rap culture, rappers like Black Tiger, Brandhärd and TripleNine in Basel and Radio200000 in Zurich have entered football culture or, as has often been the case, been born out of it, accelerating this change. Graffiti culture was another part of this movement. Well-known graffiti artists such as DARE in Basel and REDL in Zurich, along with collectives such as 031 in Bern, have created huge wall paintings and murals that are now recognised as a distinct culture with roots that reference the creator’s local club.
“Kämpfe bis zum Schluss” (Fight to the finish) by Basel rapper TripleNine, 2013. YouTube / FetchOnFire Bonvinvant
Looking back, it can be seen that fan culture in football has become more colourful, varied and complex. The culture in the fan blocks and in the stands also reflects this change: there are now many more women in front of and inside the stadiums than there were even 10 or 20 years ago. Whereas previously the vest-wearers bellowed their racist catchphrases and chanted battle cries, and hooligans spread panic and fear in the football stadium, nowadays there is much more creativity both inside and outside the grounds. However, this aspect of diehard fandom receives far less attention in the media, which prefer to dwell on the violent excesses that have always existed. The history of fan culture is also a story of migration: from English hooligans to Italian, Croatian and South American ultras to hip-hop and graffiti culture, most of it has made its way from abroad to Switzerland, where it has been customised, modified and culturally transformed.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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