• Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

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UEFA Euro 2024: Why does football hooliganism exist and how do we tackle it?

2024pr056pic1Dr Paul Davis

With the men’s UEFA Euro 2024 tournament taking place this summer (June 14 – July 14), Senior Lecturer in Sociology of Sport at the University of Sunderland, Dr Paul Davis, explores why abuse, hooliganism and violence continues within football fandom and what could be done to address it.

England and Scotland are in the men’s Euro 2024 football tournament in Germany. While many will look forward to it, the police have already met England players over the threat of online racism. This is part of a broader fan problem. As well as racism, might there be sexism, homophobia or xenophobia? Will there be other abusive fan behaviours, online and elsewhere? Will there be violence? Might that lead to domestic violence? It begs the questions of why football has a seemingly unique underbelly of ugliness, and how its persistence might be addressed.

The explanation likely involves several things. One is that the cultural scale of football gives it a unique emotional significance. Another is that many football clubs are originally linked with other civic associations, such as political parties, churches and trade unions. At a minimum, clubs express a geographic identity. These alignments encourage fans to define themselves as not-the-other, and to define themselves positively and the other negatively. This is strongest with one’s biggest (usually local) rival, e.g., Sunderland (good) is not-Newcastle (bad) and vice versa, Celtic (good) is not-Rangers (bad) and vice versa, and Cardiff (good) is not-Swansea (bad) and vice versa. The mindset transfers smoothly to the international context, e.g., Scotland-England, Netherlands-Germany, and Argentina-Brazil.

Another factor is football’s historical alignment with working-class masculinity, especially in Europe and Latin America. There are positive aspects of working-class masculinity, such as service, honesty, courage, sacrifice, skill and generosity. The healthy community roles played by football clubs and national associations would be impossible without them. But there can be less attractive traits associated with working-class masculinity, too. These include the glorification of physical and psychological domination; exclusion, stigmatisation and spite; an aggressive pride, with sharp reaction to its apparent slighting; one-upmanship; the championing of excess and risk, especially with alcohol consumption; a willingness to use violence; and the denigration of anything that smacks of the feminine, such as emotion, moderation, the mind, and male homosexuality. These tendencies are a platform for the exclusionary and dehumanising attitudes of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia (among others); for the abuses within the online world, especially social media; and for physical violence.

The Euros have qualities apt to sharpen the toxicity. It is a comparatively infrequent, ‘short and fat’ event with high stakes, particularly for nations (such as England) with a strong pedigree and hopes of progress to the business end. Contests might be imagined, explicitly or implicitly, as tests of national virility and machismo. The mainstream media might reinforce that picture in its behaviour.

There is no easy solution. But we should not adopt a counsel of despair. The culture of football has seen genuine change. Women and girls are more accepted and comfortable at all levels, and some are celebrated. Gay men are no longer a no-no. Racism is arguably less virulent than before. Victims of sexism or racism are less likely to tolerate their mistreatment. Players and managers are often a different beast from thirty or forty years ago. Stadia are more civilised. Games can be watched over a meal in a pleasant pub. While there is clearly a way to go, continuation down the road of progressive change is possible.

There is, finally, a potentially profitable irony. Despite the affinity between football and an unsavoury masculinity, this kind of masculinity is not the one most celebrated in the game itself. The Olympian gods of football are not revered for macho reasons. Most admired about (say) Ronaldo, Messi, Mbappe, Pele, Neymar, Maradona, Cruyff, Best, Iniesta, Dalglish and De Bruyne are their craft, speed, touch, nimbleness, cunning and artistry. Faced with opponents such as these, toughness and aggression are often handicaps. Reminding football fans what they most admire in the game and the kind of masculinity it embodies could help steer them away from the backward masculinity that disfigures fandom and is implicated in abuse, hooliganism and violence. Supporters’ associations (club and national) could be vehicles of such reminders.