A Sociological History of Soccer Violence

How social and cultural rifts manifest themselves through sports—especially when fans identify intensely with their team

Argentina's fans run away from tear gas as they clash with riot police in Buenos Aires after Argentina's World Cup loss to Germany  (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

After yesterday’s relatively uneventful World Cup final, it’s likely that Brazil’s devastating semi-final loss to Germany will be the most memorable match of the tournament. Brazilian soccer fans reportedly dealt with the loss by setting a bus on fire, as Rio dispatched riot police to keep disappointed fans from getting out of control.

In Israel, where I’m based, the Israel Defense Forces are knee-deep in a military campaign in Gaza, and hundreds of rockets have been launched into Israel by Hamas since Monday. It's been reported that all six suspects charged with the brutal murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, a crime which acted as a catalyst for the current conflict, are fanatical supporters of Beitar Jerusalem, an Israeli club soccer team whose fans have a reputation for their anti-Arab sentiments.

Given high profile stories of violence committed by soccer fans, often in horrifying ways, it's no surprise that researchers studying the phenomenon of spectator violence have tended to focus their attention on soccer, the most popular team sport in the world.

Although violence has been related to English soccer since the 13th century, when hundreds of men would compete in pitch battles to settle disputes between rival villages, soccer-related violence, dubbed “football hooliganism,” gained visibility as a more contemporary social issue in England in the 1960s, earning it the moniker of the “British disease.” (Unfairly so, since soccer-related violence existed throughout the world long before.)

“From the 1960s to the 1980s, we [saw] a move from spontaneous incidents of soccer-related disorder in the U.K. to organized viciousness,” said Dr. Steve Frosdick, an expert in sports safety and security who co-authored Football Hooliganism with psychologist Peter Marsh. “This is where the groups of hooligan youths, who call themselves ‘firms,’ would get together and fight each other away from the ground.”

Soccer violence was quickly identified and politicized in other countries as well, with security initiatives at European stadiums that included separating standing fans from the pitch or each other with barriers like walls or fences. The strategy backfired however, culminating in the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels in 1985, in which rioting Juventus and Liverpool fans before the start of the European Cup final led to 39 deaths and hundreds of injuries. In 1989 in Sheffield, during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, panicked fans crushed 96 people to death as they tried to escape the fenced pens.

Seated-only stadiums, increased marketing to middle-class families, increased monitoring at games, and targeted policing of the leaders of firms from the 1980’s on has largely reduced soccer-related violence in much of Western Europe, according to Ramon Spaaij, a professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam and Victoria University in Melbourne who studied hooliganism in the U.K. and Europe. Though soccer hooligans still exist today, he says the groups are smaller and better at evading the police—often having short, prearranged, violent confrontations away from stadiums on non-game days.

By contrast, high rates of sports-related violence is still seen in other regions of the world, including parts of Eastern Europe, North Africa, and South America. In 2013, Argentina suffered 18 football related deaths, Colombia suffered 40, and Brazil suffered 30, the highest in the country’s history.

According to a hypothesis put forth by sociologist Eric Dunning in his book Sports Matters, athletic events are realms in which other major issues in society, often related to class, religion, ethnicity, politics, regionalism, historic rivalries, etc. can play out among supporters. Violence, rather than just being about the sport, can be interpreted as an expression of contrasts between populations. That means the conflicts are best studied within the societies where they occur.

“Dunning’s hypothesis is that you can’t separate soccer violence from the wider situation—instead it manifests itself along the fault line in a particular society,” Frosdick said.

And, according to Frosdick, the hypothesis fits when we look at recurring incidents of violence. In Spain, regional tensions help intensify soccer rivalries, hence the divide between Barcelona and Real Madrid. In Italy, where the historic split is between the industrial north and the agricultural rural south, tensions arise when Juventus FC plays SSC Napoli.

“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.”