Hooliganism in English Football

T SaadiQ KamaliCorrespondent IJuly 15, 2008

Disorderly behaviour has been common amongst football supporters since the birth of the sport, but it is only really since the 1960s that it began to be perceived as a serious problem.

In the 1980s, however, hooliganism became indelibly associated with English football supporters, following a series of major disturbances at home and abroad, which resulted in numerous deaths. Vigorous efforts by governments and the police since then have done much to reduce the scale of hooliganism.   However, it still persists, albeit in new forms. Today, in contrast to the more or less spontaneous upsurges of violence from the past, gangs of rival fans will frequently arrange to meet at specific locations, using mobile phones or the internet, before and after matches to fight.   Furthermore, while England has the worst international reputation for hooliganism, a number of other countries have similar and growing problems. Today, the highest profile hooliganism problems tend to occur in relation to international matches and events.   In all these countries, some gangs of hooligans share other characteristics, interests, and beliefs that incline them towards violent conduct, including links to far-right and racist organisations. Others, however, are apolitical and are simply composed of men who enjoy fighting.   Although football hooliganism only rose to widespread public attention in the 1960s, it had been with the sport since its earliest development. In the late 19th century, concerns were frequently voiced about groups of "roughs" causing trouble at matches by attacking not only opposing supporters, but also players and referees.

Many sociologists point to football's origins in working class Britain as a factor distinguishing it from the majority of sports popular today, and contributing to its links with aggressive and disorderly behaviour. Although football became more "respectable" in the interwar period, and violence went into decline, levels of disorder and public concern about hooligans rose sharply in 1960.

This was in conjunction with a number of other moral panics relating to new youth cultures and growing racial tensions. In this context, football stadiums rapidly became identified as public spaces where large scale threatening ritual displays and fights could be staged.   Gangs emerged staking their claims to certain "territories" within football grounds, and strong "tribal" loyalties grew up intermingling gang mentality and support for particular teams.

The territorial factor is widely accepted to be the principal reason behind the particular rivalries between neighbouring teams and the susceptibility to violence of derby matches—although other local factors are prominent in some cities (i.e. sectarianism in Glasgow).

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It should be noted that in the 1960s football violence was considerably worse in many other European countries than in the UK. In the early 1960s, the Football League sought to pull English teams out of European competitions for fear of the threat posed by foreign fans. However, studies have shown that football violence outside the UK is largely a postwar phenomenon.   Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, football violence was largely confined to football stadiums, but the trend to move outside has been increasing since then. In the 1990s, following the introduction of all-seater stadiums, in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, nearly all large-scale football violence occurs outside stadiums.   A watershed in the history of English football hooliganism was the Heysel disaster of 1985, in which a "charge" by Liverpool fans at rival Juventus supporters caused a wall to collapse, resulting in 39 deaths. English teams were banned from European club competitions until 1990. 

During this time, substantial efforts were made by the police to bring the problem under control. Simultaneously, considerable efforts were also made in the 1980s by football clubs themselves to eliminate racism amongst fans.

Ironically, perhaps one of the most significant factors in reducing the problem of hooliganism has been the widening interest in the sport since the 1990s and the influx of huge sums of money. At the same time, however, the influence of improved police technology and methods along with a new unwillingness to tolerate hooliganism as "a bit of a laugh," have pushed it away from the mainstream and into its new, less overt forms.   The excesses of football hooligans since the 1980s would lead few to defend it as "harmless fun" or a matter of "letting off steam" as it was frequently portrayed in the 1970s. Explanations for the phenomenon are wide and varied.   Moreover, while hooliganism has declined in overall scale, it continues to occur in new and sometimes more alarming forms. In April 2000, Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight, two Leeds United supporters, were stabbed to death in Istanbul ahead of a UEFA Cup semi-final, in what the coroner's inquest described as "an organised ambush" by Turkish fans.   The extent to which large-scale hooliganism and rioting is now primarily an international phenomenon (and as the absence of crowd trouble at the 1994 World Cup in the USA would suggest, a European phenomenon) raises a new series of problems.   The influence of alcohol on football violence is also a disputed factor. In the past, when hooliganism was more "spontaneous," there was clear evidence that many of those involved were drunk. Efforts to ban alcohol from grounds and to monitor and control behaviour in pubs in the vicinity of grounds has had an impact on this sort of disorder.

The media has also contributed to football violence. Although reports are uniformly critical (apart from where blame may appear to lie with foreign fans or police), studies have suggested that the language of war and combat employed by the media in covering football reinforce the aggressive and confrontational perception of the sport.

Headlines such as the Daily Mirror's "Achtung! Surrender!" printed ahead of England's match with Germany in June 1996, have been particularly criticised in this regard.

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