The Ugly Side of The Beautiful Game: The War on Hooliganism Scrutinized

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Lise Joern
Institute of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics
University of Southern Denmark


 

Brett Bebber Violence and Racism in Football: Politics and Cultural Conflict in British Society, 1968–1998 288 sidor, inb. London: Pickering & Chatto 2012 (Perspectives in Economic and Social History) ISBN 978-1-84893-266-1

Brett Bebber
Violence and Racism in Football: Politics and Cultural Conflict in British Society, 1968–1998
288 sidor, inb.
London: Pickering & Chatto 2012 (Perspectives in Economic and Social History)
ISBN 978-1-84893-266-1

There has been considerable academic research into the behaviour of football fans since the 1970s, resulting in a number of theories explaining supporter behaviour mainly sociologically, but also from criminology, psychology and socio-legal perspectives. Until the 1990s almost all of these contributions focused exclusively on criminal fan behaviour at or around football matches. Although these explanatory theories shed light on several aspects of ’football hooliganism’, they suffer from some shortcomings. Each addresses the issue from a single viewpoint, which means that, however relevant it may be, it ends up simplifying the multiple facets of the origin and development of the phenomenon. Few scholars have sought to examine the policing of football hooliganism and the least studied of all aspects is the impact of counter-hooliganism policies. In Violence and Racism in Football: Politics and Cultural Conflict in British Society, 1968-1998, the American historian Brett Bebber aims at drawing a broader picture of the phenomenon. His study, based on research in government archives, police records, newspaper articles, and fanzines, examines the interactions between politicians, police and violent spectators.

From the late 1960s onwards, the disorderly actions of groups of football supporters became known as ’football hooliganism’ in the media and as hooliganism became perceived as a significant social problem, political interest in the phenomenon increased. This is not to claim that football crowd disorder was a new phenomenon or one deserving of such media attention. Football-related disorder and violence more specifically was often a feature of nineteenth-century fixtures in the UK (Dunning et al. 1988) and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, had become commonplace in and around many European football stadia (Tsoukala 2009). The phenomenon has, however, undergone a series of significant changes, which began among British football crowds during the 1960s. From around 1967, these violent outbreaks became more frequent and more serious, evoking dismay and becoming a cause for concern.

This led to the development of moral anxiety. In the first two parts of his book Bebber explores the reaction of Parliament, the media and the courts to all of this. The overall response was to define ’football hooliganism’ as covering all those forms of boisterous, anti-social, malevolent or criminal behaviour that had always occurred at football grounds. Activities that had not previous attracted the attention of the criminal law were suddenly labelled ’football hooliganism’ and met with ejection, arrest and a possible prosecution for breach of the peace. The reaction to football related violence has been both extensive and controversial.

Walter Winterbottom, coach to the England football team between 1946 and 1962, supervised some scientific research on possible ‘corporeal damage’ to spectators on the terraces, which calculated that humans needed a mere 2.25 square feet of space on which to stand and could withstand a maximum of 206 pounds per square foot of pressure (p. 81). These calculations were to determine how tightly the spectators could be packed without crushing them to death. Denis Howell (Minister for Sport 1964-70 and 1974-79) envisioned even more drastic measures against spectators. Based on confidential files Bebber shows how Howell visualized stadiums as war zones. A hand-drawn image made by Howell depicted a football ground guarded by machine guns along the boundaries of the pitch and land mines behind the goals to prevent pitch invasions (p. 87). Similarly, FA official Denis Follows called for greater involvement of police dogs, and of police brutality (p. 105) and Labour MP Walter Johnson called for the enrolment of military service (p. 131).

A hand-drawn image made by Howell depicted a football ground guarded by machine guns along the boundaries of the pitch and land mines behind the goals to prevent pitch invasions.

Taken as a whole, such examples leave behind the impression that the ’war on hooliganism’ is conducted according to the precept that the end justifies the means, and that state authorities are equipped with the moral right to act as they please – even to discount the rights of football supporters – as long as they do so in the service of the cause. However, as Bebber points out, in trying to impose law and order over football spectators, politicians and police actually exacerbated the violence.

It was primarily the football disasters of the 1980s that led to calls for regulation of the game, regulations that subsequent increased. Legislation was promoted in a number of distinct areas covering the availability of alcohol at matches, the structure of grounds and the question of membership schemes. Although it is the Conservative government of the 1980s and early 1990s that can take credit for the legal terrain that now pervades football fandom, Bebber reveals that earlier Labour and Conservative administrations also adopted the law-and-order governance.

Much legislation was initiated without any clear analysis of the origins and anatomy of ’football hooliganism’. There was no attempt to understand how and why outbreaks of football-related disorder and violence occurred; the symptoms would merely be tackled in an authoritarian way. This is perhaps unsurprising, representing as it did the government’s typical approach to a number of social problems.

Bebber shows that legislative interventions into football fandom have occurred at a time when issues of social regulation more generally have taken increasingly moralistic forms. His book examines the political and ideological dimensions of the ‘war on hooliganism’, setting the problem of football related violence in its wider historical context. It shows how the social definition of football hooliganism constructed by the media and state authorities was able to connect with existing social anxieties in the population at large, and argues that this has helped to legitimate a more coercive state role in a period of growing political, economic and racial (dealt with the final third of the book) conflict. It explains how counter-hooliganism policies became political tools to ease fears and provide solutions, and they became synonymous with handling the growing social, economic, and political anxieties over unemployment, immigration, and integration in post-war Britain.

References

  • Dunning, E., Murphy, P., & Williams, J. (1988). The Roots of Football Hooliganism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Tsoukala, A. (2009). Football Hooliganism in Europe. Security and Civil Liberties in the Balance. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Copyright © Lise Joern 2013

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