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Hooliganism & Violence
George Orwell wrote in The Sporting Spirit (1945):

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words: it is war minus the shooting.”

And in some way he may be right. The most popular sports have had a form of violence connected with them since as long as we can remember. Take for example racing, whether it’s the ancient Roman chariot races or the more modern NASCAR or Formula 1 racing. Many people admit to watching the modern races regularly in the hopes they see a spectacular crash. Or the more inherently violent combat sports. Boxing, MMA (a contest where fighters use various styles of martial arts against each other) and more are all based on combat. The entertainment value of these combative sports is undeniable, and go as far back as the Roman gladiators being pitched against each other or wild animals for the entertainment of the public. Come to think of it, the Romans seemed almost as drawn to violent sports as we are today. Or does it just seem that we today are more drawn towards these sports because of the widespread nature of media? In any country with a television or internet connection (which is most countries these days) it’s highly unlikely that there is not one form or another of these sports being broadcast to the masses for entertainment. Slow-motion replays of car crashes and the drivers being pulled from burning wrecks, or of knockout punches in fights. If the Romans had access to the recording and broadcasting equipment we have today I’d wager they would have the same replays, played infinitely over and over again, and then later in the evening in the recap shows where the presenters would pour over every minute detail of fist (or sword) connecting with the opponents flesh.

And those are just the sports that are built around violence. There are many sports that need not be violent per se. Team sports like ice hockey (which is famous for its brawling on the ice) or football are also often involved in violence, and not just by the players. The fans like to get involved here too, and for some this has even become a more crucial part of being a fan than going to see an actual match or game. Football fans in particular are known for their penchant for bashing each others brains in. Be it before a match, after, whether they win or loose, or even just because they spot someone who supports a different team walking down the street.

And then there is the political violence sports often find themselves caught up in. Also dating back as far as the Romans, we can find a lot of literature on the Nika riots in AD 532 which took place in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Half the city was destroyed and tens of thousands of people died because the people revolted against the emperor Justinian I, most likely controlled or manipulated by members of the senate who opposed the high taxes he had imposed.
More recently we are of course drawn towards the Olympics in Beijing of 2008, and the winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. Particularly in 2014 we were confronted with a great deal of homophobic violence. Not limited of course to the 2014 Olympics, as Russia’s political stance on sexuality is very closed minded, the media downpour on Sochi because of the Olympics cast a great big spotlight on it. Effectively introducing the world to what was happening there.
Or who can forget the massacre at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where 11 Jewish athletes were held hostage and subsequently murdered by members of the Palestinian group Black September.

Not all violence in relation to sports is bad though. Take for instance the First World War: Soldiers from both fronts are said to have laid down arms during Christmas and arose from the trenches to meet each other halfway, exchange gifts and played some football together. There are various accounts of what happened, we know for certain there were cease fires, hymn singings and gift giving on certain parts of the front. Though the actual football matches are widely contested.
Still, it is an interesting thought: Two warring factions coming together to play a spot of sports just because it’s christmas. We have a hard time imagining something like that happening today.

Most research into hooliganism centers around British football hooligans, the rise of which happened mid twentieth century. This essay by Ramon Spaaij reveals many interesting facets to the people involved in hooliganism. Hooligans were generally seen as working-class youths who wanted to protect their territory and used violence as an outlet. If we look at todays hooligan however this characterisation is not so clear. Many types of people seem to draw entertainment from violence, in the same way that people enjoy (violent) video games or even politics. Violence too, is an extension of the competitive nature of all things sports.
It is this competitiveness which i feel is key to understanding these hooligans. For these people, violence is a way of asserting their dominance over their fellow man. Some might enjoy other outlets as well, But still they keep returning to this one thing. It must be so exhilarating for them to combat each other, to remain the last man (or group) standing amidst the carnage. To prove that they are better than their opponent.

Where does it begin though? People don't just decide when they are 38 or 45 that they want to beat each other up, do they? Again referring to the case of football hooligans there are many notions of the types of characters involved. These are often seen as the aforementioned working-class people, or people that come from unstable home environments. Youths banding together to protect 'their territory' or to defend 'their teams' honour. The problem with these notions, as Ramon Spaaij also notes, is that everyone seems to have an opinion. And for all these opinions it is possible to point out half-proofs to support them.
In truth, anyone can be a hooligan. It could be the poor kid who works at your local supermarket or your investment banker looking for an escape from his day-to-day life. The binding factor is an inclination towards violence. Most of our ideas of what constitutes a hooligan comes from what we are most regularly confronted with: Trouble makers from the lower layers of society. But this notion is formed by what we see and hear. When the media reports on hooligans engaging in conflict and destruction, all we see is hooligans being hooligans. We have no view of what these people are like in their daily lives, what kind of education they have or their jobs. We just assume that because we have seen them behave in this manner that they are always like this.
One thing we can say for certain, is that our penchant for glorifying violence in our entertainment does not help. Everywhere we turn we seem to be confronted with violence in some form. From films like Gladiator (2000) to films that deal directory with hooliganism like Green Street Hooligans (2005) or The Football Factory (2004). The latter two films lay their focus on people who are lost in their worlds and looking to find a place where they belong. So even though they also show the darker sides of hooliganism, they focus much more on the euphoria of finding a place to belong, of being a part of something larger than just oneself. In this respect I feel that they have a point: In the same way 'regular' fans cheer, laugh and cry together during a match (even with people they have never met before), so the more violent fans band together, searching for acceptance amongst peers, brotherhood if you will. I can imagine that at a certain impressionable age youths, especially those who do not feel accepted and are searching to find their place in the world, are easily lured into this lifestyle, where an act of vandalism or violence can get one accepted into the group.
In an interesting sidenote: the football club Juventus' most feared supporters group call themselves Drughi, a name they have appropriated from the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange (1971). Interestingly enough they only ever refer to the film and never the original book by Anthony Burgess from 1962, on which the film was based.

Does it have something to do with the history of sports? Or perhaps it has more to do with the fact that there always has to be a winner and a loser. This inherently competitive nature of sports facilitates the combative nature by pitching two players or teams against each other. Each side supported by their fans and/or countrymen.
In mosts sports it is not the actual players who conduct violence against each other. It is almost always the fans. Seeking each other out, challenging their opponents by riling them up before or after a game. Some even going so far as to venture in to the opposing groups territory to incite reaction or in an attempt to establish their dominance.
And wether their team won or lost, some fans band together and end up fighting either way. In the case of the most extreme forms of hooliganism, some groups don't even bother with seeing the actual matches, but use their fandom as an excuse for wanton destruction and violence.

See for example this video, around the 2 minute mark.

However, in most cases hooligans don't feel the need to behave this way outside of 'match day'. To quote again from the essay by Raymond Spaaij:

…In the majority of social spaces oppositions between  hooligan formations tend to be functionally suppressed and intra­city rivalries are generally  regarded  as sanctioned  only within  match­day contexts. For example,  two hooligan rivals living only two streets away from each other in a central district of Barcelona seem to have achieved  some  form of informal agreement as to the  suspension of their animosities in  everyday life:  Of course, we run into  each other  all the  time.  Usually I just nodd  and  walk  on. Honestly, there is no point in confronting him in the streets, is there? I mean, where  would that end? He knows where I live  and I know where  he  lives. It’s a  different  story when our groups meet on match days. I mean, we  have fought each other  on  various occasions over  the  years. But during  the week  there  is this kind  of mutual  understanding…

It is logical to assume that most hooligans behave in a similar manner, for if they did not then surely we would hear about hooligans in combat more often!

So why then, this need to provoke and attack each other when there is a match?
In my opinion, and from what I have found, the actual violence can have multiple causes stemming from peer pressure from the group, or a need to prove dominance. Many people attribute violence to human nature. I personally do not believe this to be true, and there has been a fair amount of research in to this, for example this article by Alfie Kohn published in Psychology Today (1988) shows us that humans aren't genetically programmed towards a violent nature.
We are however, social creatures. We have a need to be a part of a group, and so we seek out the companionship of other people. We long to be accepted and a part of something bigger than just ourselves. My feeling is that people who are part of these hooligan social circles, are there simply because they were accepted into them. Had they been accepted into another group first then they most likely would not have felt the need to be a part of these violent groups.
One thing I have learned throughout the writing of this piece, is that it doesn't really matter who you are, or where you come from. Anyone could potentially be or become involved in hooliganism.

Author's note: Many of the examples and references used mainly focus on hooliganism and violence in football, I believe however, that although football is probably the most commonly known sport associated with violence and hooliganism, the social and psychological aspects can be applied to all forms. Also, while briefly mentioning other forms of violence in relation to sport (eg. political) I have chosen not to dive deeply into these aspects. In my opinion that is material for an entirely different essay.

Aspects of Hooligan Violence
Youth and Hooliganism at Sports Events
Football Hooligansim
Are Humans Naturally Agressive?
Human Nature isn't inherently Violent
Fandom as Pathology
Violence in Sports
Deviance and Social Control in Sports
Homophobia in Sochi Winter Olympics 2014
Political Violence in Sports is nothing new
Sport in a changing world
The Christmas Truce of 1914
George Orwell - The Sporting Spirit (1945)
The Nika riots
Are Humans Innately Aggressive

If you have any other reference materials of interest to this subject, please do not hesitate to add them to the list or send them on to

Author: Micah Westera

violence_and_hooliganism_in_and_around_sports.txt · Last modified: 24/11/2015 19:47 (external edit)