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Why Fans Fight

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Professor Eric Dunning is a leading academic in the area of sport and violence and has written a number of books and articles on the subject. met him to find out what he thinks are the real causes of hooliganism, why it seems to affect football above other sports and what role a country's culture plays in the phenomenon.
Sheltering in a doorway with his son from a charge by fellow Leicester City football fans, Prof Eric Dunning felt something being pushed into his jacket pocket. It was his son trying to hide his Leicester City football scarf. He didn’t want these rampaging fans to see him as a football fan and therefore a potential target, even though they supported the same team.
Many of us, much older, football fans feel the same way. Though we share a sense of identity because of the team we support, the vast majority of fans do not commit acts of vandalism or physical violence. Yet 'football hooliganism', as it has been labelled, is one of the biggest problems facing the world’s most popular sport.
So where does this violence come from? "It is largely patriarchal" explains Dunning. "Soccer offers a context for some forms of largely, though not exclusively, male violence to occur. This is because soccer involves intense emotional excitement, the idea of an enemy and a defence of territory. For people who find it hard to control themselves, this can easily lead to hatred for the opposing team."
In a new book edited by Dunning called 'Fighting Fans', he explains his hypothesis that hooligans organise themselves around the structural fault lines in a society, so that even though each country’s reasons for soccer violence may seem unique, there are common themes. "Just as in Spain fans are organised around the Castilians, the Catalans and the Basques, sectarianism in Northern Ireland provides a natural division."
These structural fault lines are evident in most countries. "In England, that means class and regional differences and inequalities, and in Italy, city-based particularism, and perhaps the division between North and South as expressed by the formation of the 'Northern League'."
If this is the case then why is hooliganism often portrayed as being unique to football and specifically as an 'English disease'?
"There are arguments to support this but I only half believe them. Because football is a low scoring game with little physical contact unlike American football or rugby it is argued that the build up of emotion in fans can lead to violence. However, crowd disorder also occurs at violent and high scoring sports events like boxing and, in the south west of France, rugby."
Dunning also points to evidence of hooliganism at US sports events where, it is argued, crowd disorder is not uncommon. Fan fighting, missile throwing and vandalism have all been reported in US media both during and after sports events, though to nothing like the same degree that it occurs in Europe.
Dunning also believes that it is wrong to think of hooliganism as an 'English disease'. "Crowd violence is present in almost every country where football is popular with one or two possible exceptions. The problem for England is that we tend to export the problem more, which attracts international attention."
Research at Leicester University, England, has shown that between June 1996 and October 1999 there were 3 football related murders in England, 5 in Italy and 39 in Argentina. Further research has illustrated the problem of serious crowd incidents in South America, Africa, and Asia as well as throughout Europe. Evidence, if needed, that this is indeed an international problem.
Dunning accepts that his arguments on the root causes of hooliganism require further research at an international level. The issue is complex and open to unique social, religious and racial causes along with specific cultural roots. But he does believe that the common themes of aggressive masculinity, 'the quest for excitement' and the structural fault lines in a society all help our understanding of the phenomenon.
Tony Grimes, September 2002
('Fighting Fans, Football Hooliganism as a World Phenomenon' is edited by Eric Dunning, Patrick Murphy, Ivan Waddington and Antonios E. Astrinakis)




Professor Eric Dunning

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