Oct 8, 2010

How can we finally rid football of hooliganism?

By Richard French

Each season sports news channels and radio stations will inevitably report that violence has occurred up and down England. While it is not as frequent or widespread as the dark days of the seventies and eighties, there is still a problem with the ugly side of the beautiful game.

The main perpetrators of these unsavoury acts seem to come from the likely groups. Millwall, Cardiff City, West Ham United and Leeds United have all been involved in various outbreaks up and down Britain fairly recently. The question is, how do we stop it?

The answer is a little more complicated, with many sociologists and experts having given opinions on the matter over the course of the last three decades. There has been huge success in tackling it issue in that time, but we as a country are in danger of congratulating ourselves too much and ignoring that there is still work to be done to make football a truly universal game.

Last week there was a stabbing in White City, London, when Millwall took on Queens Park Rangers in a Championship fixture. Once again it was Millwall’s fans who were involved in an incident, another example of their hardcore sections of support after violence at West Ham and Hull City last season.

The south-east London club has a fierce reputation for hooliganism, dating back many years. They have been glorified in numerous films in the last decade including The Football Factory, Rise of a Foot Soldier and Green Street, meaning there has been an increased interest in the actions of these groups of men who see fit to kick lumps out of each other every Saturday.

It is not just Millwall. West Ham, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Stoke City were also featured in the films which brought the modern day football rough and tumble into the homes of the unsuspecting public. Just as war films can portray a different reality to those of us sitting at home, these hooligan films almost trivialise what is actually quite a traumatic experience for those who get caught up in the trouble.

The gentrification of football in recent years has meant that the core supporters, or rather the working classes, have been driven away from attending matches. The installation of seating and higher prices means that the clientele at football has changed beyond recognition.

However, the pricing out of hooligans doesn’t always work. Some fans will own their own businesses or have relatively well paid jobs, meaning that £30 for a ticket is not a deterrent. CCTV has worked well but Stone Island hoodies and baseball caps cover up faces when needs be.

Problems arise when, like last Tuesday for example, two London sides meet in midweek. It means large numbers can travel to a local rival and they have had time to drink alcohol before the game.

The current measures have worked as much as they can, often driving away the troublesome and forcing the rest to learn how to behave in a manner which society recognises as acceptable.

Those who are often referred to as ‘Ultras’ in Europe, essentially lunatics who are looking for trouble, will always be associated with football and unless we penalise them even more heavily we will continue to hear reports of innocent men with stab wounds.

Interestingly, ‘Ultras’ in Italy are often not necessarily looking for violence. It is more of a social ‘family’ which requires one to sport the colours of their club at all times. The Ultra groups actually have power within the club and sometimes hold positions on the club board. This is wildly different from the ‘Firms’ over here which couldn’t be more separate from the football club.

The answer is essentially relatively simple. For widespread violence on a matchday, the club should be docked three points (effectively meaning the fans have lost the game for the team). For pockets of violence the club should have to play their next home game behind closed doors (meaning they miss out on important revenue).

To some this approach might seem harsh, though if the fans are having a directly negative effect on the club’s fortunes, they might well cease their idiotic behaviour. If they do not, they will soon end up watching the club play at non-league level, or simply rotting in mediocrity in the bowels of English football.

The banning orders, restriction of movement and criminal charges have worked to a large extent, though this would be the final step in getting the idiots away from football. With a high profile campaign we would be allowing the next generation to go to matches without the fear of seeing their father stabbed or beaten, something which is only healthy for the long term future of the game.

There must be a real push from all true fans to kick out these elements whilst still holding onto the intense rivalries which makes the game so unique. Without the electricity of a hostile atmosphere, we might as well stop playing.

The clashes between Liverpool and Everton and Arsenal and Spurs are highlights of the season, and we must be very careful that ridding the game of Ultras does not mean we rid it of passion.


Anonymous said...

interesting piece mate. I agree with you about the 'hardcore' gangs of Millwall, Chelsea, Tottenham, etc. This is all quite obvious to the public eye as you mentioned with the romanticising of it in films such as Green Street, Football Factory and the like. What I think would be an even better way for you to go with this would be looking at the the problem of smaller clubs in the North like Burnley, Port Vale, etc. They all seem to have the 'small team syndrome' when they attend bigger clubs. could this be a geographical problem, social or just generic?! Danny Dyer did a documentary on this element a fewew years back but as per usual with Mr. Dyer it was more about hiim than the actual story. What do you think? Again a very good article Mr. French, I just think we should be drawn to the bigger problem of hooliganism and why to these 'smaller' teams they get up for a fight between Burnley and Doncaster for example?!

All the best

Sean Garwood

Anonymous said...

Who decides whether the violence is widespread or not? And how are the innocent fans whose season tickets are already paid for? How are they to be compensated for circumstances out of their control? Plenty of the people who actively looking for trouble see the on-field success of the team as secondary. So the ideas you put forward are not only unworkable in a practical sense, but are targeted at the wrong people.

Anonymous said...

There would, of course, be experts who would decide on the level of the violence. By having criteria for levels of disruption to the general public, damage to property, number of arrests etc. This would be quite simple to implement.

I am more than aware that the hooligans are not only focused on the on-field fortunes of the team. That does not mean that they are completely immune to the pain 'real' fans feel when the team is doing badly. By docking points, it would certainly (in the long term) discourage 'firms' from fighting. If it doesn't stop the current bunch, it might then stop youngsters who are thinking of getting involved.

The real fans thing is unfortunate, but by buying a season ticket to Millwall etc one must accept that there will be violence, it is inevitable. I wish it was different, but unfortunately it is not. Perhaps some will choose not to renew tickets for the following season? This would hit the club where it hurts and force them to take even more steps to combat the trouble, not to mention the high profile media coverage this would generate, making people aware of the problem rather than thinking it is something which happens only in a movie.

It's merely an idea and not necessarily the right way forward, but the fact is we all must agree that something needs to happen as it is only a matter of time before the next 'aggro' comes about.

Richard French

Lorenzo said...

It is interesting that would you are suggesting be done in England, is actually what is being done at present in Italy. While in Italy, they look to the example of England's clean-up of hooliganism, as the path in which to follow.

Perhaps in Italy, they have gone a step further with security, and so maybe now England can look at those methods and both countries can learn from each other.

In Italy, tickets can't be purchased without Official ID imprinted onto the ticket and presented at the gate. This way unwanted fans are flagged from a database of culprits and denied access. There is also a staggered entry system to some stadiums, where fans pass two security checks prior to stadium access, for example San Siro.

A number of annual fixtures between clubs of intense rivalry with a history of violence are automatically played behind closed doors or closed to the away support, such as matches between Fiorentina and Parma and Lazio.

Teams have also been docked 3 points for violence in the last few years.

It is a tough system but one which is slowly seeing some success in Italy. Certainly on the whole fans have calmed down a considerable bit.

I think Germany is the place at the moment for the genuine spectator. I know the Italian league directors are also examining their policies and protocols closely.


Anonymous said...

I was reading 'The Italian Job' by Gianluca Vialla and Gab Marcotti last month and found it to be very interesting on the subject. I'd highly recommend the book for those interested in Sociology of football and Sport in general. Whist the writers discussed the current system they also got quite a few interviews with fans who oppose the measures, it makes for a very well balanced read.

I think higher regulation might well be the way forward, but I would hate to see a situation when West Brom and Wolves or Southampton and Portsmouth matches were played behind closed doors, I personally feel that it would kill off one of the only things I really enjoy about English football- the rivalries.

Richard French

Anonymous said...

So hooliganism is an issue only if it affects the top clubs, right? What about the Luton fans in the Conference playoffs? What about the Borehamwood fans in the Ryman playoffs? And what makes you think these knuckle-dragging morons give two hoots about the docking of points? They are no more interested in the result of the game than we are in the result of their fight.

A painfully simplistic piece which displays a complete lack of understanding of the mindset of the people involved.

Anonymous said...

I was in no way suggesting that it only effects the top clubs, in fact I understand fully that there are 'morons', as you put it, at every level of the game. Once again I would stress that I am merely offering an example of a route we could take to tackle this problem.

There are other ways, and if one studies the sociological and socio-cultural factors in the issue then it is clear that there is no 'right answer' as to what to do. Of course if I was to write a longer and more in depth piece I would go into more depth as to how to deal with the wider social problems. The break down of family units and lack of meaningful education which results in many people getting involved in these antics would be up for examination. Unfortunately, I cannot justify filling up these pages with thousands and thousands of words and referencing from books. It is a short article, not an essay.

The Italians might well have a point with the ID route- meaning only those with clean records can buy tickets to games. Once again I would add that there is no way we can rid the game of this fully, but the docking of points etc would certainly be a step (even if it is only applied to bigger clubs in higher leagues to start with).

We may well have to agree to disagree on this. I have studied the social side of the game quite intensively as well as experiencing life in the inside circles of football hooligans from various clubs. I would like to think I have some understanding of the issue, even if you believe my opinion on how to deal with it is "painfully simplistic".

Thanks nonetheless for your feedback.

Richard French