For all the positive aspects of football, it’s the dark side of the game that causes the most controversy. Hooliganism has been a long-standing problem and one that likes to rear its ugly head up from time to time. It also provides plenty of media attention-grabbing headlines, bringing the game into disrepute.
For the most part, it’s an area that is not condoned by the majority of fans. However, hooliganism and disorder is a sticking point, one that has long been attached to the game. It is also a difficult area to approach, but whatever your opinion on it, it is fair to say that it isn’t easy to fully understand nor eradicate.
The one thing that can be agreed upon, is that football is certainly tribal. Rivalries are part and parcel of the game. Chanting and taunting opposition fans in an attempt to create a hostile and intimidating atmosphere, where the sole intention is to put the opposing team off. There’s a lot to be said about fans being the 12th man, helping to create an electrifying atmosphere. For the most part, it’s a lot of fun, but unfortunately, it can and does run over.
Although violence can seem like a more recent aspect of the game, it has always been like this to various extents. Even the word hooliganism has been around since the late 1800s, but has only been used to describe football fans since the Second World War. Despite issues with fans clashing in other sports, they aren’t labelled as hooligans.
The back story around the word ‘hooligan’ is varied but there are several theories from where the word originates. Most of them revolve around a rowdy London based Irish family, with the surname ‘Houlihan’. The family operated a gang known for violent behaviour. Eventually, the Houlihan family became known as the ‘hooligan gang’ and police reports from this time, show that the term Hooligan itself was then used as a way to describe criminals!
It can be hard to understand the logic behind hooliganism, and why rowdy and violent behaviour occurs. Certain aspects point to why it might happen and unfortunately, there’s not a lot that can be done to fully combat this.
The first is that as a sport, football is a high tempo, fast-paced game. Unlike other fast-paced sports, it happens to be a low scoring game, which leads to frustrations. Missed opportunities, creating chances with no end result, players out of positions and god forbid an inept manager. All of these situations provide a catalyst for tensions to boil over and whilst some can keep control over their emotions, others can’t. Especially when a group of individuals all feel the same frustration. It manifests as rowdy and loutish behaviour which can quickly turn violent.
Crowd mentality is another area. Psychology dictates that we are more likely to do things as part of a group than on our own. ‘Confidence in numbers’ springs to mind and you can quickly get caught up in the moment and end up taking part in something you normally wouldn’t do. Mix this with a highly charged atmosphere and things begin to take a very different course, as a large part of the game is the social aspect; group numbers are high. Mostly it results in just chanting and gesturing but it can quickly lead to pockets of fighting and acts of violence.
Then there is social class, with the majority of fans coming from working-class backgrounds. Proportionally the working class makes up the largest section of society. Whilst you wouldn’t necessarily put football and politics together you can generally suss the mood of a nation by what is going on amongst fans. In the last few years, for example, there have been more spikes in hooligan and racist behaviour in and around the game. This can be attributed to political unrest, with the UK set to leave the European Union, causing divides and uncertainty. This lead to frustrations running over and being reflected in fan behaviour.
Another sticky area when it comes to hooliganism is to do with the fact that football is a working-class sport. When you look at other sports like cricket, horse racing and even rugby, their history are more entwined with the middle classes. The majority of traditional media outlets are operated and funded by middle-class people. Journalism is considered a mainly middle-class occupation, so there isn’t much chance of them reporting acts of hooliganism in sports associated with their social standing. But it doesn’t stop them seeing the working class as fair game to string negative and bias stories against.
History also tells us that fighting amongst the work classes was a popular past time. During the 1800s it was common to see fights taking place on street corners. It probably had a lot to do with alcohol (as it does now) as pubs were dotted everywhere. A small town could have a pub on every street and with football being the sport of the working class, it’s no wonder that fighting on street corners made its way on to the terraces. Is it any different to today’s society? How common is it to walk down your local high street, especially on a Friday/Saturday nights to see fights breaking out? Seldom is it referred to as hooliganism.
There have however been lulls in violence. Between 1918 and 1939, otherwise known as the inter-war years, there was hardly any hooliganism reported. This was likely down to the conflict that had taken place. Society as a whole had seen enough fighting, and with many fans having served their country, they had no interest to cause any violence at the football. As time went by and with the new generation of fans coming through who had never experienced the war directly, once again hooliganism begins to make an appearance.
In the 70s and 80s hooliganism reached its peak. It was a dark time in football and came at a time when racial tensions were high and right-wing groups were actively trying to recruit football fans for their cause. There was also the controversial Falklands War weighing on the nation and entire industries; coal, steelworks and clothing manufacturing being shut down and moved overseas with communities being ripped apart as a result. The general population was seething and the government was affecting everybody’s lives in one way or another. This frustration and anger were likely to be contributing to the violence seen within football at the time.
The 80s also saw the rise of Casual culture on the terraces. Depending on how you want to look at it, some aspects of this culture was shaped by political and social unrest. They wanted to indulge in something new and one that could take their minds off everyday life. For many youngsters the future was uncertain and they just wanted a sense of community and belonging, the Casual culture provided this, but it also provided an opportunity for acts of hooliganism. It’s worth remembering that at this time hooliganism was often pre-organised, rather than a spontaneous outburst.
The reporting of football-related violence poses another issue, especially as newspapers and the media like to sensationalise everything. From the 70s, right up to the current day, many news outlets send reporters to football games, not to watch and report on the match but to watch fan behaviour. The aim is to look for any hint of disorder. Which is convenient as most of us will attest that very little fighting takes place at the game. Pockets of disorder occasionally occur before and after the game but mostly it’s over before it began.
Whilst there are many positives of the games, it’s always the negatives that stand out the most. In some ways it seems that the very nature of football in itself will ensure that there will always be some issues with hooliganism, as stamping it out completely seems very unlikely.
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