4- Football and social inclusion – what does research say?

Wednesday 16 October 2019

4- Football and social inclusion – what does research say?

But what does scientific research say about these presumed benefits? Social scientists are a skeptics by nature, always eager to verify positive assumptions through critical in-depth fieldwork.
While the role of football in the integration of migrants has not been the object of a vast body of academic literature, it turns out that a concise review of scientific publications, whose empirical observations and grounded in theoretical frameworks, do actually confirm the positive effects mentioned above. Below we will concentrate on three relevant approaches to the topic.


Football – a shared sense of belonging

This is the title of the ethnographic Report on the Role of Football in the Lives of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers, written by the British cultural sociologist Chris Stone following a three-year study (2010-2013) in Sheffield on behalf of the NGO Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD). In his key findings, he encapsulated the benefits of football in five major concepts (echoing, in a more elaborate academic vocabulary, the points listed above). These can be succinctly summarised as follows:

  • Routine – football provides a consistency in lives, a connection between the past and the present. Its sheer banality offers a sense of regularity and normality.
  • Catharsis – evacuation of stress and relief from the pressure of managing lives that have become complicated; positive emotions allow to develop positive thinking and anticipation.
  • Sociality – football provides an alternative channel of interaction, in which identity is not reduced to ethnicity or political/legal status, as well as moments of strong in-group cohesion.
  • Empowerment – regardless of the level of performance, football is an activity in which it is possible to exert some control in lives that are otherwise completely powerless.
  • Plurality – football stages difference and sameness, repetitiveness and unpredictability, challenge and comfort, frustration and success; it’s a space where things appear possible. [1]

For Chris Stone, the “sense of belonging” that football can generate should be seen as “the interconnection between cultural, communal and personal aspects of life that make people feel able to express themselves freely and see themselves as an equal” (page 75).

[1]        Chris Stone, Football – A shared sense of belonging, Sheffield: 2014. See also Chris Stone, “Utopian community football? Sport, hope, and belongingness in the lives of refugees and asylum-seekers”, Leisure Studies, 2018, vol. 37, no 2, p. 171-183.


Australia is an interesting benchmark in terms of inclusion of migrants through football. Over the last ten years, there have been a series of publications on the topic. The work of Ramon Spaaj, from the Victoria University in Melbourne, draws on the concepts of “habitus” and “capital” coined by Pierre Bourdieu. Findings from this research point to the following conclusions:

  • Relief – something as simple as kicking a ball has the potential to alleviate, even if only momentarily, feelings of exclusion, hopelessness, alienation and depression.
  • Connectedness – The notion of competition makes football ‘meaningful’ and provides a crucial step in move from a state of isolation to one of connectedness and group solidarity.
  • Self-esteem – football gives individuals, who have lost most of their initial social and cultural capital, an opportunity to acquire new symbolic capital as players and team members.
  • Transferable benefits – playing in a football team very often connects individuals to other positive outcomes such as employment, education, and other non-football related spaces.[1]

Spaaij and his co-authors also insist on the ambiguity of sport’s capacity to foster social integration of migrants, which is always “conditional and context-dependent”. For them, “any attempt to use sport to promote social inclusion must be informed by a critical awareness of its strenghts and limitations as a social practice and cultural form”.[2]

[1]        Brent McDonald, Ramón Spaaij & Darko Dukic, “Moments of social inclusion: asylum seekers, football and solidarity”, Sport in Society, Vol. 22, Issue 6 (2019), pp. 935-949. See also Ramón Spaaij, “Refugee Youth, Belonging and Community Sport”, Leisure Studies, Vol. 34, Issue 3 (2015), pp. 303-318; and Sport Inclusion Network (SPIN), Inclusion of Migrants in and through Sports. A Guide to Good Practice (2012), p. 2.
[2]        Ramón Spaaij, “The Ambiguities of Sport and Community Engagement”, Ethos Vol. 21, Issue 2 (2013), pp. 8-11.


Forms of capital

A more modest, but rather revealing, research working paper based on fieldwork conducted in Glasgow by a collective of master students from the Oxford-based Refugees Studies Centre[1], explicitly draws on Robert Putnam’s theory of social capital[2], differentiating between “inward social capital” (emotional resources and ability for capacity building in the social environment) and “outward social capital” (which includes both the capacity of bonding within a social group and bridging between different groups).

Inward social capital – football provides a combination of factors strengthening well-being in providing newcomers with trust in themselves and members of the host society, and also in hinting at the two-way character of a successful integration process.
Social bonds and bridges – football is a space where it is easier to establish bonds, not only among migrants, but also bridges across different social groups. These bonds and bridges need not necessarily be close friendships but are marked by a high level of trust.

[1]        Olivia Booth et al., “United Glasgow Football Club. A pilot study in sport’s facilitation of integration”, Refugees Studies Centre Working Paper No. 99, Oxford University, April 2014.
[2]        Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 6 (1995), pp. 65-78.

Football’s contribution to the integration process – and its limits

What different research approaches on football and the integration of migrants have in common is the insistence on the fact that football, despite its remarkable multiple benefits in the integration process, also has limits. Participation in football activies do “not inherently lead to the desired impacts and outcomes” in terms of inclusion, as the ENGSO report Creating a Level Playing Field prudently pointed out.[1]

Football is never sufficient on its own, but only one contributing element in a complex process that also relies on many others. This is a fundamental message for citizens who volunteer in activities including migrants, whether in clubs or associations: they need to realise that they can make an important contribution through the wonderful tool that is football, but that they need to do so with the required humility in front of a very complex issue.

[1]        ENGSO, Creating a Level Playing Field: Social inclusion of migrants and ethnic minorities in Sport, 2012, p. 12. (ENGSO stands for European Non-Governmental Sports Organisation. It is based in Stockholm).