The Ugly History of the Beautiful Game

Football hooliganism, aka ‘the English Disease’, is endemic around the world. So, is a single country to blame? Tony Lennox grabs a pie in the stands…

Beautiful Game

The small Warwickshire town of Atherstone, which sits on Watling Street, the old Roman road marking the division of Anglo-Saxon England and the Danelaw, is the scene of an annual ritual which dates back more than 800 years.

The Atherstone Ball Game resembles the original mediaeval event: it involves a large and unspecified number of young men pursuing a ball up and down the main street in a frantic melee that lasts for an indefinite period every Shrove Tuesday. The only official rule is that “no-one is allowed kill anyone”.

Almost every town and village in England had a similar tradition until the 1830s when Parliament, alarmed by annual mayhem — the official rule was frequently broken, back in the day — introduced laws to restrict such events. In Atherstone, and one or two other locations, these laws have been ignored.

The link between football and violence is long-established in the British Isles — one of the reasons why many Europeans blame the UK for “exporting” hooliganism.

The first incident of football-related thuggery came in 1885, when two founder-member teams of the Football League, Preston North End and Birmingham-based Aston Villa, met for a friendly game. Preston beat Villa 5-0; Villa’s supporters attacked their rival fans — and both sets of players and officials.

This was, after all, the period of the real Peaky Blinders, one of a number of notorious street gangs from Birmingham. Victorian Britain’s industrial cities all spawned similar mobs.

Aston Villa were again in the spotlight when they competed in, and won, the European Cup in 1982. In the semi-final against Dutch champions Anderlecht, an English fan ran on to the pitch. Anderlecht officials demanded Villa’s disqualification, claiming the pitch incursion affected the outcome of the game, but the English club escaped with a fine.

By the early 1980s, Europeans were becoming exasperated by the behaviour of English fans, who regularly rampaged through the continent’s cities. English clubs were dominant in European competition, winning six consecutive finals from 1977 to 1982, but violent behaviour — allegedly unknown in the European game — caused shock, fear and outrage.

By 1985, England’s pariah status was cemented by tragic scenes at a game in Brussels at the Heysel Stadium between Italian champions Juventus and Liverpool. Inside the stadium, and before the kick-off, English fans charged their rivals, provoking a stampede — and 39 mainly Italian fans were crushed to death when a wall collapsed. A further 600 were injured. UEFA, football’s governing body in Europe, described it as “the darkest day in the history of European football”.

The disaster prompted UEFA to act — by banning all English clubs from European competition until 1990. But the actions of UEFA missed the mark; by the time English football authorities were finally shamed into taking action, hooliganism had taken root across Europe.

During its European exile, the process of “gentrifying” the English game began. Stadium facilities were modified, seating replaced terracing, and tougher action was taken to root out racism and deter the hooligan element. But meanwhile, European clubs were witnessing an explosion of antisocial behaviour.

Despite extensive research, social scientists across the continent have failed to agree on a cause or explanation for the ugly phenomenon. European researchers have suggested a link between football hooliganism and a general rise in juvenile crime and delinquency in many countries, plus the emergence of deviant subcultures.

And while some continue to point the finger of blame at the English, studies have shown that football violence has many different causes. While hooliganism in England has been largely connected to tribal club loyalties, in Europe, racial and ethnic tensions are often at the heart of such hostilities.

Politics also plays a part, with far-right extremists, especially in former Soviet bloc countries, using matches as recruiting events. Much of the trouble in and around Spain’s football grounds is said to have its roots in the Civil War, or separatist tensions in Catalonia.
More organised violence, on a different scale to the English football gangs, is now evident in the European game. Italian clubs have their “ultras” — well-organised, and in some cases, almost paramilitary groups of fans, some of whom have used firearms in pre-arranged clashes with rivals.

In France, regular hostilities between supporters of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Olympique de Marseille encapsulate the divisions between the north and south of the country. In Russia, some club gangs organise squad “training weekends” involving improved fitness… and battle strategies.

The notion that all Europe’s football woes directly stem from the English “bovver boys” in the 1970s and ‘80s is disputed by many experts. The Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), an independent, Oxford-based non-profit which researches socio-cultural trends is one organisation that believes it to be a myth.

In an SIRC academic study, Steve Frosdick and Peter Marsh suggest there are three general fallacies related to football hooliganism: that the problem is new, that it is a uniquely related to football, and that it’s a purely English phenomenon.

When crowd trouble began to emerge as a serious challenge on the European mainland in the 1970s, it was suggested that fans were simply imitating their British counterparts. Claims by some sociologists that hooliganism was unknown on the continent until that point are, however, contradicted by the evidence.

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century there are numerous reports of sport-based street fighting in continental towns and cities. In 1920, furious fans at a game in Villaggio, Italy, killed the referee. There are other documented incidents — in almost every country where football is played.

Yugoslavia was a hotbed of fan violence. In the mid-1950s a wave of football brawls, known as zusism, broke out around the country across ethic and religious lines. Fans armed themselves with hammers, mallets, iron bars and knives. In Turkey, rival spectators confronted one another with knives and pistols; in one incident, 42 spectators died, mostly from stab wounds. The army had to be called in.

Even during the inter-war years, crowd disorder and street fighting were recorded in Hungary, France, Germany and Sweden. Indeed, some British football clubs, fearful of the potential for violence, refused to play friendly matches on the continent.

Psychologist Peter Marsh, the author of Rules of Disorder, a study of gang violence, believes much of the aggressive behaviour witnessed among English football supporters is ritualistic in nature — and largely symbolic. It is true to say that serious injury, even during the height of hooliganism in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, has been comparatively rare. Fans of rival teams chant, posture, and pose… but seldom cause serious injury.

How did the modern game become so intrinsically linked with violence? When football was first established in England, those behind its development made strenuous efforts to distance the game from the age-old tradition of communal violence.

Association Football was designed with clear rules, and imbued with Victorian values of fair play and gentlemanly conduct. It was essentially the pastime of the aristocracy, who formed quaintly-named clubs like the Old Etonians and Corinthians. The first recorded football club in France was founded in Paris in the 1860s — by “English gentlemen”. Their robust style of play was said to have amazed French onlookers.

Historians believe a major turning-point came when English football turned professional, mainly in the North and the Midlands. It developed into a working-class sport, in terms of its participants and its followers.

Crowd trouble in the modern game subsequently became a relatively common phenomena in Britain’s towns and cities, but it was in the mid-1960s — paradoxically, at the moment of English football’s greatest triumph, the home-turf World Cup victory in 1966 — that a new breed of hooligan emerged. Sociologists have failed to agree on a single cause, but most point to changing social attitudes and the emergence of new subcultures among the young.

The Teddy Boys of the 1950s led to the rise of Mods and Rockers in the 1960s, eventually producing the skinheads and bovver boys of the 1970s: gangs which were almost exclusively linked to football clubs.

Despite constant study, there is a general lack of consensus or reliable data on football-related violence, making a general assessment almost impossible. Universal explanations can’t accommodate all the cross-cultural variations. Some commentators have likened the sometimes-venomous disputes between teams of sociological experts to hooliganism itself.

There are areas of agreement, however. The role of the media, especially the tabloids, is frequently identified as an aggravating factor. Sensationalism has been blamed for stoking tensions between rival fans ahead of a game.

And it isn’t confined to club matches. Sections of the British media have been criticised for likening almost every international match with Germany to the resumption of World War II hostilities.

Nor is violence restricted to football. The first recorded incidence of sport-related fighting involved chariot races in ancient Rome. There have been incidents of crowd trouble at baseball, basketball, ice hockey and American football matches, as well as at rugby league and union games in England and France.

The US has a history of spectator violence. At the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, police fired teargas to disperse fans after the finals of the bobsleigh competition. Minor sports are not exempt, either. Serbian fans clashed with Croatian rivals after a water polo European Final in Belgrade in 2003. There have even been incidents, worldwide, at cricket matches.

While violent incidents still occur from time to time in the English game, there is no comparison to either the dark days of the 1980s. Facilities for English fans are now among the best in the world. Effective campaigns have all but eliminated racist and homophobic behaviour in English grounds, something which cannot be said for some European countries, notably those in parts of eastern Europe.

Nothing illustrated the changing status of the English football hooligan more than events at the Euro 2016 tournament, held in France. Well-organised Russian thugs routed their slightly pudgy, lager-swilling English counterparts in running battles on the streets. England’s hooligans were no longer at the “top” of the league.

There have been other positive developments. Some argue that the hooligans themselves are changing. There was a time when negative media coverage was seen as a badge of honour; this appears to be fading. The Scottish “Tartan Army” and the Danish “Roligans” distance themselves from the old hooligan ethic, presenting a very different style of engagement — boisterous, frequently alcohol-fuelled, but non-violent, generally amiable, and respectful of host countries.

There is little doubt, however, that despite all the efforts to control violence, there is, and probably always will be, an appetite for fighting among some young men. And football, with its tribal passions, continues to provide a focus.

Elizabethan pamphleteer Philip Stubbs understood this, and he could have been watching the Atherstone Ball Game when he described football as “a bloody and murdering practice”. And in 1829, an unnamed French observer of a rough village game wrote: “If this is what the English call football, what do they call fighting?”


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