Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

It’s only a game? Football violence, from the sociologist’s perspective.

“We have to ask why we're surprised when there's violence associated with football? It's been an arena for largely ritualised patterns of expressions of aggression since time immemorial and you can go back even further: to classical history, to accounts of the circus factions of the fans of chariot racing in Rome and later on in Byzantium. You find descriptions of patterns of behaviour that are almost identical to those on the football terraces today. You have fans dressed in team colours, that used to career around the place, beating the shit out of each other, setting fire to each other's clubhouses and generally annoying everybody”. Dr. Peter Marsh, of the Social Issues Research Centre, has studied football violence for many years, having first approached the topic for his graduate thesis. A confessed lapsed fan, he first approached the topic out of an interest both in the violence and the football. “I was interested in issues of youth, in issues of aggression, in football, and getting paid to go to football matches to do research seemed as good a way of doing research as any.”

A report produced a number of years ago by the S.I.R.C makes for interesting contemporary reading, as it seems little has changed. Then again, as you read through the reports introduction, you see that little has changed in relation to the passion and problems associated with the fans, since the origins of the game. “Medieval football matches involved hundreds of players, and were essentially pitched battles between the young men of rival villages and towns, often used as opportunities to settle old feuds, personal arguments and land disputes. Forms of ‘folk-football’ existed in other European countries (such as the German Knappen and Florentine calcio in costume), but the roots of modern football are in these violent English rituals.”

It of course provokes the question: is there something inherent in football that leads to the violence? For example, why don't we see violence related to synchronised swimming, or more realistically to a similar game, like rugby? “Well, with rugby, it depends on whether you're talking about Rugby Union or Rugby League, due to class factors. But in essence, we have seen violence associated with nearly all team sports: riots in Yankee stadium in the States, or one in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. It's not uniquely associated with football, but I agree that it has grown up with that kind of association, with that kind of tradition; particularly with that kind of tradition of working class lads finding some kind of outlet for developing a reputation for themselves, a sense of identity. You can't achieve that through education or through work, but you can achieve it by being classed Jack the Lad on the terraces on a Saturday afternoon. Once that kind of social arena develops – people taking on these sorts of roles – you see this type of behaviour building up”.

I wonder is it a class problem then? “It's fairly straight forward, the vast majority of people who go to football matches and are involved in what we might describe as yobbish or hooligan behaviour come from working class backgrounds. The people who get arrested at football matches are by and large from local housing estates. That's not to say that it's always the case, but it is certainly the majority pattern, and it has to be understood in those class terms to some extent”. I'm about to interject, to question the approach, but Dr. Marsh continues, and in so doing answers my question: “A purely sociological analysis of the problem doesn't really get you very far though. A lot of lads from the same social backgrounds don't get involved in the same pattern of behaviour”.

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