Alfonso Del Percio

The Big Idea

Perhaps an analogy might bring home the big idea of this research paper.  In the world of Western Pleasure Horse Competition, the competitor is penalised if the horse swishes its tail.  Although now illegal, it was a common practice among competitors to eliminate this possibility by “nerving” the horse’s tail.  Nerving was essentially deadening the tail by cutting the nerves in the tail.  This prevented the horse losing points for the rider in the show.

Now this abuse caused at least two problems for the horse.  First, an individual one.  When pastured the horse is unable to shoo flies away.  The tail just hangs as the annoying fly’s swarm.

Second, there is a social consequence.  Being a herd animal, horses tend to graze together in a pasture.  When the flies are really biting, they pretty much line up side-by-side.  Let’s say they are on a north/south line.  One horse will face north; its neighbour will face south.  In this manner, the north-facing horse will swish its tail to help keep flies off the face of the south-facing horse; the south-facing horse will return the swishing favour for the north-facing horse.

But the horse who has been nerved is typically excluded from the mutual swishing practice.  Since it cannot bring anything to the local custom it is usually ostracised by the herd.  If tail swishing is a sort of language between horses, the nerved horse cannot communicate sufficiently well to be a legitimate herd horse.  It grazes alone, shunned and is now doubly handicapped both individually and socially.

In the human world, nerving is symbolically much the same.  It is by way of language or the lack of it that humans either stick together or fly apart.  In the case of this research paper we see the way in which language functions for better and for worse in the evolution of one soccer club, FC Basel.  In an ethnographic case study two quasi-nerved actors—one a fan, another a coach—find themselves shunned from the FC Basel local herd.


  • The football (soccer) club FC Basel in Switzerland was founded in 1893.
  • For 100 years it remained a local Basel possession and a source of local identity and pride.
  • But in the early 1990s multinational investors initiated its transformation to a professional club.
  • The club’s players and leadership personnel gradually became more and more multicultural and multilingual. So too the fan-base was increasingly from elsewhere and seemingly speaking in tongues.
  • Even though the media and politicians celebrated the growth of new speakers who grew the club’s financials, the locals increasingly believed their home-grown club, steeped in local traditions, history, and values was being corrupted.
  • This researcher (Alfonso Del Percio) followed FC Basel between 2007 and 2013, gathering and evaluating a wide range of ethnographic markers of this change from a club with deep local roots to a transnational professional business entity.
  • Using this ethnographic data, two transnational actors are characterized in their nervy attempts to become legitimate members of the traditional FC Basel. One is a fan (Marco) and one becomes the FC Basel coach (Miguel).
  • Marco strives valiantly to learn Baseldytsch, the local Basel dialect. And fails.
  • Miguel (Portuguese) promises to learn German in order to better communicate with the larger Swiss population and to legitimate his role as the new FC Basel coach. He didn’t.
  • Neither of these two new speakers were successful speakers, were correspondingly judged unworthy of local membership, and thereby were denied access to the traditions, habits, practices, and codes of legitimate Basel-born community members.
  • In horse-speak, they couldn’t for the life of them swish their tails.

The Research

Like it or not, traditional soccer clubs are no longer defined by local control and pride.  As the clubs are transformed into transnational profit centres, sustaining local dialects and myths is a challenge.  New fan groups with different languages living elsewhere crossing boarders are drawn to stadiums once the property of the locals.  So too are the players themselves and the larger circle of soccer workers (coaches, trainers, managers) from everywhere but “here.”  According to Percio, of the 25 players of FC Basel in Switzerland in 2014, only four were Swiss and only two were from Basel.

While traditional local fans often see these outsider fans as poachers corrupting the sport, the newcomers themselves are also challenged in attempting to become legitimate fans of the local club.  In this paper, Percio carried out an ethnographic study of FC Basel.  Between 2007 and 2013, he conducted semi-structured interviews, observed fan behaviours, studied media coverage, and analysed computer mediated data as background for two case studies.  His goal was to understand the nature and significance of fandom ideologies, both of locality and difference.

Several times a week Percio attended games in Basel or in other Swiss or European cities.  He joined up with several group fans of the traditional sort who were invested in celebrating FC Basel.  Contact with these groups over the years included attending meetings where song routines were coordinated and flags and banners were created.  He also attended celebratory events promoting FC Basel.

FC Basel

Ever since its founding in 1893, FC Basel was considered a local possession and valued as a way to compete for bragging rights against other Swiss teams within the federalist structure of Switzerland.  This was so for the first 100 years of FC Basel’s existence.  Professionalisation of the club was underway by the early 1990s marked by the construction of a new stadium in compliance with UEFA, Europe’s football governing body.  By the early 2000s, FC Basel was beginning to be recognised as a multinational and multilingual team.

The rapid transformation in bringing FC Basel into professional prominence significantly grew its non-Swiss fan base and financial profile, but also alienated loyal local fans concerned over higher ticket prices, scarcity of tickets, anonymous investors, and the loss of the team’s nearly genetic relationship to the city of Basel and its heritage.

Enter Marco and Miguel

The test for an authentic Basel fan—meaning a born one—is tongue.  In other words, there are those who speak Basel (Baseldytsch) and those who don’t (who are called “new speakers”.)  Percio introduces us to two new speakers, one (Marco) who joined a local fan community to find friends; the other (Miguel) who was the 2014 Portuguese coach of FC Basel.  Percio’s idea was to follow these two outsiders’ attempts to qualify as a legitimate part of the bona fide FC Basel community.

Marco was actually born and grew up in Basel.  But following a divorce when Marco was quite young, he lived with his German-speaking mother, never learning to correctly learn the Baseldytsch dialect.  Marco spoke standard German.  Marco’s story is a tale of a lad who wanted to become an authentic member of an FC Basel fan clique.  But his inability to understand Baseldytsch or to speak it without hiding his standard German accent continuously stigmatised him as a “corrupted” fan, one who endangers the authenticity of the traditional FC Basel fan community.

Marco wanted to become a member of the clique no matter the challenges.  He enlisted Percio to teach him the songs, the group chants, cheers, claps, and other FC Basel fan-worthy habits. In the end, and after a full educational course of FC Basel 101, Marco simply couldn’t manage to correctly articulate a particularly important vowel sound in Baseldytsch—even with occasional libations.  He was condemned to being outed as corrupt each time he let loose with his Germanised Baeldytsch.  Only if he was accompanied by a friend in the clique was he tolerated by the authentic Basel clique members.  Marco’s continuous effort to become authentic failed in the end.

Miguel’s story illustrates a slightly different local fan intolerance.  He was brought on to coach FC Basel in 2014 because of his internationally successful playing and coaching experience. He is Portuguese.  Didn’t speak one whit of Baseldytsch or even Swiss German or standard German.  But Miguel spoke Italian, Spanish, French, and a bit of English.  As a polyglot, he certainly had a good chance of communicating with a truly international team.  But he was in Basel now.  In his initial press conference—which was in English—he told the local community how important it was for him to become accepted in Switzerland and Basel in particular.  He promised he would learn to speak German for good social and political reasons.  He was praised for making the promise.  He was given temporary legitimation.

But alas, Miguel didn’t make good on his promise.  Tensions grew between him and the local media.  The media’s access to the players for interviews was restricted. Training sessions were closed to the public.  The coach imposed English as the language for official communication between the media and the team.  One local player favourite was made the scapegoat for a lost match against the Grasshoppers Club Zurich, calling the player a “lovely boy” who eventually would get over being pulled from the game for allegedly allowing Zurich to score.  The local media felt the coach was unfair and disrespected the young Swiss player (and by extension the nation’s young players).  The media blasted Miguel for failing to exhibit local qualities, such as humility, the Swiss mentality, hard work, and speaking the language.  Miguel was still through and through a foreigner.

Language integrates and disintegrates

Language is a resource.  Without Baseldytsch or German of some sort in these two examples, affinity with a local community was compromised.  And absence of language as the proper tongue invalidated the status of Marcos and Miguel.  While language and dialect opens doors to be sure, they can also provide conditions to close them.  In these cases the doors closed.

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