Football violence driven by tribal loyalties
Soccer is known almost as much for its off-field fights as its on-field skills. New research probes the link. Andrew Patterson reports.
The group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup is drawing to a close and thus far, reports suggest the atmosphere in and around match venues has been largely peaceful. However, with many of the relative minnows of world football cast aside, high-stakes grudge matches beckon in the forthcoming knock-out rounds, all to be played out on a politically volatile stage.
As a result, concerns remain over the looming threat of hooliganism, a topic which has been widely discussed since Russia’s contentious bid for World Cup hosting duties was made. These fears may be compounded by a recent study which connects the tribal origins of football violence with religious and political extremism.
Football violence has a long, dark history, predating even the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930. The phenomenon is thought to have its origins in thirteenth century England, when civil wars between neighbouring settlements were disguised as leisure activities involving an object in the shape of a ball. As early as 1314, the Mayor of London proclaimed thus:
“And whereas there is a great uproar in the City through certain tumults arising from the striking of great footballs in the field of the public – from which many evils perchance may arise – which may God forbid – we do command and do forbid, on the King's behalf, upon pain of imprisonment, that such games shall not be practised henceforth within this city.”
Unfortunately, this and other similar appeals that followed over the centuries couldn’t loosen the grip of violence on a chaotic pastime. While regulation of the sport in the nineteenth century ultimately brought about a semblance of order on the pitch – first, by helpfully defining the pitch itself – disorder off it has continued to make headlines, reaching a peak in the 1970s and 1980s, and re-emerging in recent years.
Now, research from the University of Oxford may shed new light on what motivates supporter scraps. Earlier studies have considered hooliganism “an expression of social maladjustment”, stemming from exposure to domestic violence or dysfunctional behaviour in childhood.
However, the new study, led by anthropologist Martha Newson, suggests off-field flare-ups are more socially driven, citing the desire to reinforce bonds with, and defend or protect, allied fans, adding that these factors may also drive other forms of extremist behaviour.
The research, published in the journal Evolution & Human Behaviour, canvassed 465 fans, among them known hooligans, from the football hotbed of Brazil. The findings show that members of super-fan groups – the most extreme of which are often known and feared as ‘ultras’ – tend to exhibit their capacity for violence only within the supporter community, and do not carry this trait into their day-to-day lives.
“Our study shows that hooliganism is not a random behaviour,” explains Newson.
“Members of hooligan groups are not necessarily dysfunctional people outside of the football community; violent behaviour is almost entirely focused on those regarded as a threat – usually rival fans or sometimes the police.”
Newson says passion for football within a group of fans “instantly ups the ante”, because violence can result from the commitment fans have to their respective cliques. This is identified in the study as an example of a psychological construct known as “identity fusion”, which in extreme cases has been found to inspire acts of self-sacrifice for the sake of a group.
Another factor is the range of environments supporter factions find themselves in, such as situations where they can be subject to abuse from rival fans. As a result, superfan groups are considered by Newson to be “even more likely to be 'on guard' and battle-ready”.
While the study surveyed only Brazilian football fans, the authors believe the findings can be applied not only to supporters elsewhere and to other strains of sports-related violence, but also to religious and political extremists.
“The psychology underlying the fighting groups [is] essential for groups to succeed against each other for resources like food, territory and mates, and we see a legacy of this tribal psychology in modern fandom,” Newson adds.
The research does not suggest that cracking down on extreme supporter factions will necessarily be effective in curbing violence. It also indicates the use of hard-line policing, such as the use of tear gas or military force, is likely to be counterproductive, potentially sparking further violence by driving the most committed fans to intervene physically in defence of their fellow supporters.
The findings reinforce the research team's previous work, which aimed to understand the role of identity fusion in extreme behaviour through football violence. The authors believe that there is potential for clubs to take the intense social cohesion that drives off-field violence and channel it in more positive directions.
“As with all identify fusion driven behaviours, the violence comes from a positive desire to 'protect' the group,” says co-author Harvey Whitehouse.
“Understanding this might help us to tap in to this social bonding and use it for good. For example, we already see groups of fans setting up food banks or crowd-funding pages for chronically ill fans they don't even know.
“We hope this study spurs an interest in reducing inter-group conflict through a deeper understanding of both the psychological and situational factors that drive it.”