“In Scotland, religious sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics represents the biggest fault line in society,” Frosdick said. “The manifestation of football violence therefore is when the Catholic Celtics play the Protestant Rangers in the Old Firm Derby.” In 1980, after the Celtics defeated the Rangers 1-0 at the Scottish Cup final, hundreds of fans rioted on the pitch. The incident led to the banning of alcohol at all Scottish stadiums.
One possible reason why a sports game can light the fuse on existing social issues is that fans see their team as an extension of themselves, and feel personally threatened by a loss, as Dr. Daniel Wann of Murray State University, who studies the psychology of sports fans, told The New York Times. In the 1994 book, Football, Violence and Social Identity, Gerry P.T. Finn writes of “the intense identity with the club, that makes supporters feel that they are as important as the players.”
The theory can also be applied in United States, where some of the worst spectator violence occurred along racial lines during the Jim Crow Era, like when Jack Johnson, an African American boxer, beat James Jeffries, a white, and then-undefeated heavyweight champion of the world in a 1910 match which became known as “The Fight of the Century.” Because of racial tensions leading up to the fight, firearms and alcohol were prohibited. But that didn’t stop the violence. When Jeffries threw in the towel in the 14th round, race riots broke out in cities across the U.S.
In Central America, economic tensions between El Salvador and Honduras in the 1960s led to rioting when the countries faced off in the second North American qualifying round for the 1970 World Cup, followed by a short-lived war between the two countries aptly known as the “Soccer War.”
Spaaij also points out that sports-related violence can be exacerbated and escalated by heavy-handed police. “In Argentina and Brazil, for example,” he said, “We see that a lot of fan deaths are actually fans that have been shot by police. Although police would say that they’re only reacting to initial fan violence, there is sometimes a clear negative role the police in these conflicts are playing, which reflects a broader trend of police corruption.”
For Brazil then, the World Cup was an opportunity to prove it could prevent large-scale spectator-related violence. Considering a fan was killed as recently as May, the fact that no one died because of spectator violence at the World Cup means that things might be looking up.
In addition, research has shown that merely experiencing an event as a group, as fans do at a soccer match, enhances people’s emotions. “Our research implies that individuals in crowds will experience greater heights of emotion due to shared experience of the event,” said Garriy Shteynberg, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee and one of the lead researchers on the study. “However, the type of emotion they feel will largely depend on the nature of the event. So, if people are co-attending to violence, they will feel angrier. If they are co-attending to kindness, they will feel more empathetic.” Earlier research has also suggested that fans’ “excitement-seeking” can lead to “delinquent behavior.’
“Simply put,” Shteynberg said, “shared experience simply magnifies our default reaction to an event.”