Football’s Dark Side: The Psychology of Football Hooliganism

Football hooliganism may have been at its worst in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it is starting to make a comeback. Urban Pitch examines the culture from a psychological perspective, gaining insight from a professor of psychology at The University of Leeds.

Football gives billions of people memories that will last a lifetime. This year’s World Cup has already offered up a few that will have the jaws of grandchildren dropping.

The Saudi Arabian fans vociferously singing and pirouetting to the tune of “Freed From Desire” after their shock win against Argentina. The adulation on the faces of Japanese fans following their dispatching of the Germans. The tidal wave of games continues to swell, and the list of those who’ll be able to say (both truthfully or otherwise), “I was there when…” will only grow longer.

Football has a habit of serving up these kinds of fairy tales, but it can also dish out storylines with far more sinister undertones.

football hooligans

“I was there when 39 people died at a football match in Brussels,” would have the jaws of grandchildren dropping for a very different reason.

The Heysel Stadium Disaster in 1985, in which Liverpool fans stampeded towards Juventus fans in a Champions League final, was one of football’s darkest days.

“It was total chaos,” Simone Stenti, a Juventus fan who witnessed the disaster, told the Guardian in 2005. “A kind of hell. People were covered in blood and, although they were crying, their eyes were lifeless like zombies.”

Those were the years in which football hooliganism was rife, and often imbued with racism, xenophobia, but most of all, violence.

Football hooliganism was far more common in that era. But while we don’t see sections of fans barreling toward each other from terrace to terrace like soldiers in a cavalry as often today, we do sometimes get fleeting reminders of the dark days. There has been a recent proliferation of violence at football matches.

“I was there when 135 people died at a football match in Indonesia.”

The Kanjuruhan Stadium Disaster in October 2022 was the second-deadliest in history, and is a harrowing watershed moment for a country that has been ravaged by hooliganism since the turn of the century.

The “English Disease” has gone viral. Hooliganism isn’t confined to the terraces of the English football pyramid as it once was in the 20th century.

But why is it that the mild mannered, middle class teenager can somehow turn into an impudent, yobbish, confrontation-seeking fanatic? That was the question Nick Hornby asked in the 1992 memoir Fever Pitch, and it’s also the question I asked of Dr. Russell Hutter, an associate psychology professor at the University of Leeds.

“In a group, individuals can feel less identifiable, so the individual self becomes lost in the crowd, and the group identity becomes salient,” Hutter said. “You’re part of a whole.”

The psychological phenomenon Dr. Hutter is describing is called deindividuation, the process by which individuals that are part of a group feel anonymous within it. The inhibitions that one would expect you to have as an individual become loosened, or even completely lost, when you’re part of a crowd.

Of course, there are social norms against behaving aggressively in public. But as you begin to view yourself as part of a group, as opposed to an individual, your behavior is guided by the social norms of that group. And, if there are social norms geared towards behaving aggressively — as there notoriously are in football hooliganism — those in the “firms” or the “ultras” will be prone to an increased risk of aggression.

However, it isn’t just that the individual is vulnerable to the influence of psychological processes.

england hooligans

“It’s not as quite as simple as that; there are other things that can exacerbate the situation,” Hutter said. “Alcohol reduces inhibition. If you put together alcohol and deindividuation, you can get a potent mix.”

The consumption of alcohol has always been synonymous with the watching of football. And while the pre-match pint is enjoyable and innocuous for most, it can act as the catalyst for aggression for others.

Studies have shown a two-way association between alcohol and aggression. In short, when you drink, you’re more likely to showcase aggression, and being a victim of aggression can cause excessive alcohol consumption — thus, the fan is helplessly stuck in a cycle of consumption and response.

“When people ingest large amounts of alcohol quickly, you get excitatory effects,” Hutter said. “And it’s not only alcohol; there are other drugs being used too.”

Cocaine, much like alcohol, is becoming embedded within football culture, especially in England. In the UK alone, cocaine-related arrests on matchdays were up by 38% last season. Members of the UK Parliament were told this year that the toilets at stadiums “resembled a launderette of white powder.”

The European Championship finals in 2021, and the appalling alcohol- and cocaine-fueled behavior from England fans, is the perfect example of how these drugs can take effect in the most grim of manners.

So far, you’ve got deindividuation, alcohol, and drug use contributing to the increased chance of hooligan-esque behavior.

“If you identify with the group, all these factors can interplay with one another,” Hutter said.

Identification with the group is the foundation of football fandom. It’s the reason that so many friendships can be built — or broken — over the question, “what team do you support?”

“Putting people in groups leads to intergroup bias in favor of their own group and against an outgroup, even if they don’t know the members in each group,” Hutter said.

This psychological theory is called the minimal group paradigm, and it specifies that group assignment is the minimal condition for discrimination. Something as trivial as putting people into groups can lead to discrimination against the outgroup, whether or not you have any connection whatsoever to members of the ingroup. This effect is put under a magnifying glass with something like football.

“If we compare other group situations such as a concerts, it’s much less likely that [violence] would happen,” Hutter said. “There’s not that division between people. Everyone’s there to see the same band or singer.

“In a football match, it’s different. There’s an identity that goes with supporting Team A or supporting Team B. There’s a slightly tribal mentality.”

Slightly might be underplaying it.

The “Us against Them” mentality in football is palpable at any game, at any level. On the extreme end, the fiercest of rivalries are predicated on that mentality. Games like Rangers vs. Celtic, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, or River Plate vs. Boca Juniors represent the pinnacle of sporting competition between players and fans alike.

Steeped in politics and off-the-pitch melodrama, these derbies are on hand to feed the insatiable appetites of football fans. There’s nothing quite like them.

And while on the pitch, they produce those aforementioned memories fit for grandiose recital — take the Lionel Messi-engineered decimation of Madrid at the Bernabeu, or the Old Firm ‘Demolition Derby’ in 2000 as examples — they can also produce the ugliest of scenes. The histories of all three of those rivalries are littered with instances of fan violence perhaps due to the intensification of tribalism.

The “Us against Them” trope isn’t just exclusive to supporter altercations. The police regularly become entangled in the delirium as well. Reports of police brutality at the Indonesian stadium disaster last month serve as evidence to this claim. In such cases, it may be the police that are vulnerable to the influence of deindividuation in what could be considered a parallel to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

The constituents taken together — deindividuation, alcohol, drugs, identification, tribalism — culminate with the dystopian scenes we often see.

Dr. Hutter didn’t seem optimistic that the problem of hooliganism can be solved, and it’s hard to disagree with him. The ingredients discussed are so entwined within the culture in a way that makes it difficult to see how future outbursts won’t reoccur.

Psychology offers an explanation behind football hooliganism, and in turn explains why our beautiful game isn’t always so beautiful.

The increased presence of Qatari authorities at the World Cup means we probably won’t get any “I was there when…” tales of an ominous flavor — the ones that we normally see at major tournaments. Hopefully though, we get plenty more of the alternative ones. Morocco is the latest side to throw world rankings out the window and champion the underdog motif with its victory over Belgium.

These are the stories that put the focus back on the football, and offers respite from the political discourse shrouding this World Cup.

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