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Soccer hooliganism as an English and world problem

This is an excerpt from Sociology of Sport and Social Theory eBook by Earl Smith.

The figurational approach to football (soccer) hooliganism does not constitute a "super theory" that explains everything about the phenomenon; it is offered only as a beginning on which to build. Its distinctive features are that it is based on a synthesis of psychology, sociology, and history and that it involves an exploration of the meanings of hooligan behavior to the hooligans themselves. In this last regard, analysis of a range of hooligan statements made over a period of more than 20 years revealed that, for the (mainly) young men involved-females and older males sometimes take part as well-soccer hooligan fighting is basically about masculinity, territorial struggle, and excitement. For them, fighting is a central source of meaning, status or reputation, and pleasurable emotional arousal. They speak of the respect among their peers that they hope their hooligan involvements will bring, and of "battle excitement," "the adrenaline racing," and "aggro" (short for aggression) as almost erotically arousing. Indeed, Jay Allan, a leading member of the Aberdeen Casuals, a Scottish football hooligan "firm" in the 1980s, wrote of fighting at football as even more pleasurable than sex (1989). American author Bill Buford, who traveled with English football hooligans in the 1980s, described it thusly: "Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, one of the most intense pleasures. . . . [C]rowd violence was their drug" (Buford 1991, 201).

Research on the social class of football hooligans in Scotland (Harper 1990), Belgium (Van Limbergen, Colaers, and Walgrave 1987), the Netherlands (Van der Brug 1986), and Italy (Roversi 1994) suggests that hooligans in other countries tend to come from social backgrounds similar to those of their English counterparts.

The fact that violent spectator disorder occurs more frequently in conjunction with soccer than any other sport would thus appear to be partly a function of the social composition of its crowds. Soccer is the world’s most popular team sport, and a majority of its spectators worldwide tend to be male and to come from the lower reaches of the social scale-that is, from social backgrounds where norms tend to legitimate a higher incidence of overt aggressiveness and violence in everyday social relations than tends to be the case among the middle and upper classes. More particularly, lower-class males tend to develop a violent and aggressive habitus and mode of presenting themselves to the world more frequently than do males in the classes above them. This habitus involves a complex of learned traits which seem fundamentally to derive inter alia from (a) a pattern of early socialization characterized by a readiness to resort to violence by parents and siblings and (b) adolescent socialization on the streets in the company of age peers, for example, in adolescent "gangs" (Dunning, Murphy, and Williams 1988). In these contexts, because ability and willingness to fight are criteria for membership of and prestige within the group (i.e., for the status of these males in their own and others’ eyes as "men"), they learn to associate adrenaline arousal in fight situations with warm, rewarding, and hence pleasurable feelings rather than with the guilt and anxiety that have tended to surround the performance and witnessing of "real" (as opposed to mimetic) violence in the wider society. (By "real" I mean violence that has an intent as opposed to violence that is merely an extraneous expression with no intended outcome.)

This kind of violent habitus tends to be reinforced to the extent that such males live and work in contexts characterized by high levels of gender and age-group segregation. That effect occurs because of the relative absence in such contexts of "softening" pressure from females and older men. Furthermore, in most societies, members of groups that are lower on the social scale are less likely to be highly individualized and more likely to readily form intense "we-group" bonds and identifications (Elias 1978, 134-148) that involve an equally intense hostility toward "outsiders" (Elias 1994) than is the case among the more powerful, more self-steering, and usually more inhibited groups who stand above them. At a soccer match, of course, the outsiders are the opposing team, its supporters, and in some cases the match officials. Soccer tends to be chosen by these groups as a context in which to fight because it, too, is about masculinity, territory, and excitement. Given a widespread pattern of travel to away matches, the game also regularly provides a set of ready-made opponents with whom to fight. Moreover, large crowds form a context where it is possible to behave violently and in other deviant ways with a relatively good chance of escaping detection and arrest.

Having said this, it would be wrong to view soccer hooliganism as always and everywhere a function solely or mainly of class. As a basis for further research, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the problem is contoured and fueled, ceteris paribus, by what one might call the major fault lines of a particular country. In England, that means class and regional inequalities and differences; in Scotland and Northern Ireland, religious sectarianism; in Spain, the partly language-based subnationalisms of the Catalans, Castilians, and Basques; in Italy, city-based particularism and perhaps the division between North and South as expressed in the formation of the Northern League; and in Germany, relations between the generations (Elias 1996) and those between East and West. Religious, subnational, city-based, regional, and generation-based fault lines may draw into football hooliganism more people from higher on the social scale than tends to be the case in England. Arguably, however, all of these fault lines-and, of course, each can overlap and interact with others in a variety of complex ways-share the characteristic of corresponding to what Elias (1994) called "established-outsider figurations," that is, social formations involving intense we-group bonds ("us") and correspondingly intense antagonisms toward outsiders or they-groups ("them").

The association of hooliganism with soccer is also partly a function of the greater worldwide media exposure that the game receives. Other sports do not get as much media coverage; accordingly, such violence as accompanies them is not so publicly apparent. The media also tend to generate myths, and these, too, contribute to public perceptions. For example, from the late 1920s to the mid-1960s, the occurrence of soccer hooliganism in Central and South America, continental Europe (especially the Latin countries), Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland was regularly reported in the English press, together with statements to the effect that such behavior "couldn’t happen in England." However, unruly behavior had been rife at English soccer matches before the First World War and had never died out completely (Dunning, Murphy, and Williams 1988, 32-90). The 1960s saw the beginning of the emergence of present-day forms of English football hooliganism and media coverage which sometimes approached the levels of a moral panic. Since the 1990s, the national and local press have tended to underreport the English domestic problem of football hooliganism. Nevertheless, the problem continues to occur, though perhaps with less frequency and visibility than in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.