The 2016 European football championships currently being held in France kicked off last Friday evening. But so far events on the pitch have been largely overshadowed by violent clashes off it between rival fans. At the centre of the disorder has been one of the usual suspects, England supporters. These latest events seem to have resurrected somewhat the haunting spectre of English hooliganism which, on the back of declining recorded rates of football-related disorder, some have claimed is slowly being consigned to the dustbin of history (Ingle, 2013). While many have been asking the usual rhetorical – clichéd – questions such as, ‘why do they do it?’ and ‘what’s the point of fighting at football matches?’, some sections of the mainstream media have predictably vilified English supporters at the Euros, wheeling out the well-established and rather simplistic metaphor of ‘disease’ and its associated motifs of drink-fuelled ‘over the top’ patriotism and general ‘yobbish’ behaviour.
While there clearly are some England fans at the Euros engaging in ‘anti-social’ behaviour and a minority of committed English hooligans intent on engaging in violence, the evidence emerging out of France paints a rather more complex picture in terms of motivations behind the disorder and its broader context. In particular, the presence of what are being described as ‘organised’ groups of Russian fans reported to be indiscriminately targeting English supporters. This generates a number of important questions about the possible reasons behind football-related violence on an international stage.
In response to some of the clichéd questions mentioned above, men that actively involve themselves in football violence and disorder invariably identify the ‘buzz’ and the ‘thrill’ they get out of doing it. Men involved in football violence that I have interviewed and spent time with during my research (Ellis, 2016) value the reputation and status that displaying ‘bottle’ or courage in the face of threatening circumstances provides them. Football violence is bound up with notions of individual and collective reputations, status, as well as shame. It is a game of one-upmanship, in which both victory in a fight as well as stoicism in adversity, grants respect and potential bragging rights. Inevitably, on an international stage, nationalism and patriotism will become bound up with these complex cultural mores and this is evident in the clashes between English and Russian fans. England is a former colonial power, and, as part of the UK, it now has a significant influence in the global political economy. The violence committed by some English supporters historically during international fixtures, as well as the recent history of regular ‘organised’ fan disorder at domestic matches, and the highly stylised and exaggerated English hooligan film industry, have collectively established a specific reputation for English fans as a whole that is largely synonymous with dominance and the willingness to use violence. As a consequence of this socio-historical context, England is undoubtedly perceived as a significant scalp for some rival fans perhaps keen to bolster their own reputations. After emerging from the wreckage of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, particularly under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, has at times sought to re-assert itself as a global power; occasionally through displays of force. And the occasional aggressive actions of the Russian state has arguably not been lost on some of its citizens; particularly those involved in street-based violence (see Shashkin, 2008).
So, a critical appreciation of both the immediate and broader contexts in which football violence, and violence more generally, is enacted can aid our understanding of these incidents beyond some of the rather simplistic narratives currently been espoused that identify drink, ‘thugs’ and ‘disease’ as the causes of the disorder.
Anthony Ellis, Lecturer in Criminology and Sociology
Ellis, A (2016) Men, masculinities and violence: an ethnographic study. London: Routledge
Ingle, S (2013) Football hooliganism, once the English disease, is more like a cold sore now. The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2013/nov/03/english-football-hooliganism Accessed 14th June 2016
Shashkin, A (2008) Origins and development of racist skinheads in Moscow. In Van Gemert, F Peterson, D and Lien IL (eds) Street Gangs, Migration and Ethnicity. Oxon: Willan p.97-114