What Soccer Hooligans and Terrorists Have in Common

The question is what's going to happen at the World Cup in Russia

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Russian soccer fans of the Spartak team burn flares during a Russian Premier League Championship soccer match between Arsenal Tula and Spartak Moscow in Tula, Russia, Dec. 1, 2017.
Russian soccer fans of the Spartak team burn flares during a Russian Premier League Championship soccer match between Arsenal Tula and Spartak Moscow in Tula, Russia, Dec. 1, 2017.Credit: Denis Tyrin/AP
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

Twenty or 30 years ago, we almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to see the photos and video clips that appeared in the sports press last week. They showed dozens of Liverpool soccer fans dining in a Kiev restaurant, two days after the final game in the Champions League between their team and Real Madrid, which was held in the Ukraine capital, when suddenly a frenzied mob of local hooligans wearing black shirts – most of them Russian-speaking skinheads – burst into the restaurant and viciously attacked members of the Liverpool group. They overturned tables on them, threw chairs, bottles and glasses at them, whatever they could lay their hands on that could inflict injury.

In the annals of sports hooliganism, this was a new low: mob violence perpetrated far from the soccer stadium and without any connection to the events taking place on the field, and representing two camps of fans from countries that weren’t even playing against each other. The attackers didn’t need a trigger, such as a painful loss in a game or being subjected to curses from fans in the stands opposite, in order to go on a violent rampage.

It’s a form of hooliganism that takes place across the world of soccer but really has nothing to do with the game. It represents not sporting rivalry but national zealotry and extreme social behavior by people who almost certainly couldn’t care less about the game itself.

In fact, what we’re seeing here is a type of role reversal. After all, for decades English fans were the ones throwing the chairs and bottles. As Andy Nicholls – a proud former soccer hooligan and an Everton fan – wrote on the Bleacher Report website, in 2015, “Up to 5,000 mindless thugs. I won’t flower it up; that’s what we were – visiting and basically pillaging and dismantling European cities, leaving horrified locals to rebuild in time for our next visit. Such was the case in Luxembourg in 1983, when my mob actually chased the local army. What a fine sight: armed troops running for their safety, such was the ferocity of our attack on them, when they tried to reclaim the contents of a designer clothes shop we had just relieved of its stock.”

Martha Newson.Credit: James Foster

After viewing the clips from Kiev and reading Nicholls’ testimony, it’s perhaps easier to grasp the background to the conclusions of a research study conducted by Dr. Martha Newson, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University. Published last September (in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport), the study draws a comparison between soccer hooligans and people active in terrorist organizations and violent gangs.

As Newson noted, in a university press release: “Our studies show that many extreme group behaviors are fueled by the same motivations, but soccer bonding offered us a relatively safe space to start. The more we understand how the behavior works and what motivates it, the more likely our chances are of reducing it and maybe even harnessing its potential to produce more positive outcomes.

“Tackling one form of extreme group violence will give us the confidence and tools to apply the learnings to other areas such as fundamentalists and radicals.”

‘Identity fusion’

In a telephone interview from England, Newson says that underlying the comparison, which might well outrage many dyed-in-the-wool fans, is a mental construct that is common to people who blow up buses and to those who blow up in rage against the other team’s fans. Newson and her colleagues conducted and examined numerous studies concerning the psychological element that underlies violent behavior by criminal fans in soccer stadiums.

There is a mental construct that is common to people who blow up buses and to those who blow up in rage against the other team’s fans.

“It’s called identity fusion,” she says, “when your personal identity and group identity fuse together, and you are willing to do these extreme things for your group, which you are usually willing to do only to protect yourself or your brothers. We found the same psychology in terror cells and soccer fans, and we are starting to look at gangs as well.”

Newson undertook her research primarily in two countries: Britain, which gave the world soccer but also the “English disease” – as the hooliganism that even today is associated more with England than with any other country has been dubbed – and Brazil, which reflects vividly the lethal combination of the famous passion for the game and the dangerous involvement of local gangs and criminal organizations. At the same time, Newson emphasizes, the psychological foundation of the violence is common to fans worldwide.

“The overall finding,” she says, “is that extreme fandom and violence come from a very deep social bonding and the motivation to look out for one another. What all fans share everywhere is crowd rituals. They come in the thousands and hundreds of thousands to participate in these group rituals. Old men hug and kiss, which in the U.K. is a very rare thing. They weep in public, and it facilitates this very powerful bonding because it’s a ritual like we get in religion, like we get in any tribal group.”

It’s interesting to note that such ritual behavior is not necessarily related to great love for the game. In an interview with the website chroniclelive.co.uk, another former soccer ruffian, Mark Mennim, co-author of a 2013 book, “N.M.E.: From The Bender Squad to The Gremlins: Inside Newcastle’s Football Hooligan Firm,” said, “I hated football and preferred Newcastle to get beat, if I’m honest, because you always seemed to get more fights after a defeat. We would look for stickers on cars and vans that may say the vehicle was bought in Manchester, for instance, and we’d log that and go back to it after the match as it was probably going to have a few ‘aways’ in it.”

He added, “I never got scared. You don’t think you are going to get killed. You just get this amazing rush. It’s exciting.”

Similarly, Newson speaks of the volatile fusion between the sense of being brothers-in-arms and the collective sense of affront generated by a loss. Even for a fan who is not so rabid, she notes, something about the experience of a humiliating loss by his team can create a far more powerful euphoria than a victory, and is felt by everyone in the same way. This feeling, which gives us the sense that everyone around us is enduring the same humiliation, has an impact on the personal identity of every member of the group to the point where they adopt almost fully the collective identity.

Russian soccer fans light flares during a fourth round Russia Cup match between Dinamo Moscow and Torpedo Moscow at the Eduard Streltsov Stadium in Moscow, on September 26, 2012.Credit: AFP

Could it be, though, that the connection actually works the other way around? That it’s not soccer that triggers the fans’ latent violent impulses, but that inherent aggression causes the fans to be drawn to the game in a search for the thrill of violence?

Newson doesn’t buy this theory. “Our studies show that most people come to soccer fandom via someone close to them,” she says. “Maybe a brother, an uncle. There is usually a social connection to the soccer club, so they don’t come as loners.” The game becomes a “ritual arena” where people “congregate around soccer,” dress alike and utter chants, and “that’s what bonds people together.” And ironically, perhaps, even if one is not much of a fan, the group experience of a really humiliating loss can become “a more powerful binder than the wins” and generate a euphoria of its own.

We also know, Newson adds, that many of these fans are violent only in soccer arenas. They are often family people, well established, with regular jobs, who go to the stadium once a month to let off steam. It’s a “tribal mentality,” akin to “herd behavior,” but in many cases it’s confined solely to the soccer context. Perhaps, she speculates, it’s because the game “replicates a kind of an ancient battleground. Two opposing groups, heavy chanting, the buzz of the stadiums, and they fight for trophies, for women as trophies, fame, status, and it’s all territorial, too, so it taps into an ancient psychology to bond coalitions.”

But rabid fans and ancient team rivalries exist in baseball and rugby, too, and painful losses, sometimes lopsided, are far more common in basketball than in soccer games, which usually end with a difference of one or two goals, and frequently in a tie. According to Newson, it’s precisely the fragility of soccer that renders it so volatile. Soccer, she says, is far more fluid than any other sport. It is also “more of a gamble than other sports. The underdog can win at any time. Equally, a team that is doing very well can suddenly lose to a very low team, and that experience of a humiliating loss is a trauma for fans.”

‘Crisis of masculinity’

'I never got scared. You don’t think you are going to get killed. You just get this amazing rush. It’s exciting.'

Newson is not the first to have drawn a comparison between violent soccer fans and terrorists. In 1999, Alan Bairner, who at the time was a professor of sport studies at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, published an article titled “Soccer, Masculinity, and Violence in Northern Ireland: Between Hooliganism and Terrorism.” Examining the rise of the Irish underground in the preceding decades, Bairner argues that “hegemonic masculinity encourages patterned male violence at large,” and “this was formerly an important element in the persistence of terrorist violence.”

He goes on to explain that these patterns of violence are found also in “other manifestations of hegemonic masculinity including the antisocial behavior of certain soccer fans.” Specifically, Bairner writes that his research looked closely at “the relationship between loyalist paramilitary violence and the activities of young Protestant working-class men at soccer games.” The two phenomena, according to Bairner, constitute “interconnected responses to a crisis of masculinity rooted in economic and political uncertainty.”

There’s nothing new in a connection between soccer and violence. Very early evidence of the phenomenon is found in Britain in 1314, when Edward II banned the ancient version of soccer owing to the disorder and violence that accompanied it, which it was feared might deteriorate into social anarchy and loss of control. In terms of modern English hooliganism, the reference point is the late 19th century: specifically, frenzied rioting by fans following an 1885 game between Preston and Aston Villa.

But nothing prepared the British kingdom for the surging violence that marked soccer fields beginning in the 1960s and that reached its peak in the two decades that followed.

“When I was about 15, I started going to away matches,” Niall Slattery, a well-known former soccer hooligan, told the Irish website The 42 in 2014. “I went to watch West Ham play at Norwich – we got off at the train station and we were just walking towards the ground when we saw a massive gang of guys who were a lot of older than us. They asked us if we supported West Ham, we said ‘yeah.’ And then they just attacked us. I was just beaten up, knocked unconscious and got really hurt. I hated that feeling because it made me feel weak.”

Slattery took measures to guarantee that he would not go through that experience again. “I became part of that gang,” he said. “Initially, it was just for safety in numbers really. But before that, I really just got sucked into that lifestyle of getting into fights and organized violence. This went on for a few years,” during which, he noted, “I was in and out of hospital.”

For quite a few of the brute-fans of that time, soccer became marginal to the attendant violence. Victory or defeat, crucial cup game or routine league match, it no longer mattered much to anyone, as the former hooligan Mennim recalls. “I have never liked football and I never will but I just loved the fighting,” he said. “I was fighting for my city and I was proud of it. I have done two jail sentences, I’ve been to court on numerous occasions, done community work and probation and spent thousands on fines, but it never put me off.”

No few sociologists, anthropologists and historians have addressed the phenomenon of fan violence and have pointed to the social circumstances in the Britain of that era that transformed the arena into a venue for releasing national frustration. Their analyses echo Mennim’s account and refer to a “lost generation” of young Britons from the fringes of society. Uneducated, unemployed, living in slums, these young people were driven by a feeling of deprivation and by vast boredom.

Ramon Spaaij.Credit: Jeroen Oerlemans / University o

Ramon Spaaij, a sociologist from Victoria University in Melbourne who also teaches at the University of Amsterdam, has studied hooliganism and published several books on the subject, including “Understanding Football Hooliganism: A Comparison of Six Western European Football Clubs” (2006), and “Sport and Social Exclusion” (2014). In a telephone interview he notes that from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s, British soccer was increasingly a conduit for young thugs who were looking for a place to vent their pent-up rage.

“There is a social cultural dynamic that draws particular young men to the stadium going for a bit of action,” he says. “They see the group as a second family, there is this sense of belonging, a sense of adventure in the stadium – we own this place, this is ours. They become very territorial, and for a lot of young men who get sucked into that at a young age it can be very powerful it almost becomes one of the last strongholds they have to control some sense of power. By using violence you show loyalty to the group, to the club.”

The game 'replicates a kind of an ancient battleground. Two opposing groups, heavy chanting … it’s all territorial, too, so it taps into an ancient psychology to bond coalitions.'

Stefan Szymanski is one of the world’s leading researchers of soccer culture, society and economy. His perspective is especially interesting, as a British scholar who for most of his life lived and breathed English soccer and in recent years has been professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. His intimate acquaintance with both British and American cultures allows him to examine closely the differences between the violent fans in Europe and the “concert audience,” as civil and quiet fans in the United States have been termed.

“In the U.S. you don’t see hooliganism on the scale that you see in the rest of the world, and it’s clearly not because the U.S. is a less violent society,” he tells me, by phone. But the big difference is that, “in the world of soccer the clubs were built around the idea of winning, not the idea of profit. No one ever took seriously the idea of making money by owning a club. Many of the clubs don’t even have owners, they have members associations, so they can’t even pay out dividends, and even when they do have owners, the owners are expected to put in their own money and they use it to buy social capital in the community rather than making money out of the club.” The situation in the United States, however, is very different. There, “the owners have always seen professional sports as a way of making money.”

How does that affect the relationship between the team and the fans?

Szymanski: “Hooliganism is really helpful when it comes to winning, by intimidating the opposition, by intimidating the referee, making sure there are no fans of the opposing team in the stadium because they fear for their lives. It creates a great atmosphere for the team. Much research over the last 20 years shows that the referees themselves are quite influenced by what’s called social pressure, basically the atmosphere inside the stadium, and how a hostile atmosphere is likely to make them favor the home team.

“Whereas in the U.S., if your goal is to make money, hooliganism is a disaster. If you want to sell beer and hot dogs, how is people fighting going to help you? You want people sitting down, quiet and peaceful, hungry and thirsty. You want to have strong policing at the event to stop violence, because [violence] will prevent you from selling more beer.”

Crushed to death

Three events that took place in the second half of the 1980s are considered a watershed in the history of efforts to eradicate English hooliganism. The first occurred in 1985, in a match between Luton Town and London-based Millwall. A mass riot after the game resulted in the injury of 81 people, 30 of them policemen.

Heysel Stadium, Brussels, in 1985, where 39 Juventus fans died and 600 were wounded while fleeing an onslaught by Liverpool fans.Credit: Liverpool Echo / Mirrorpix / Get
Belgium policemen with dogs face Italian fans, on May 29, 1985 in Heysel stadium in Brussel.Credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP

This was followed, just two months later, by the Heysel Stadium disaster, named for the Brussels venue of the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Italy’s Juventus. Violence erupted even before the match, and 39 people in the Juventus stands were crushed to death and 600 injured when they tried to escape an onslaught by thousands of Liverpool fans. In the wake of this, English clubs were banned from games of the Union of European Football Associations for five years, and in fact it was only a decade later, in 1995, that English teams returned to full participation in the various UEFA events.

The soccer violence reached its tragic peak four years after the Brussels event, in the Hillsborough soccer stadium in Sheffield, during a Football Association Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. On April 15, 1989, a human crush in the standing-only areas allotted to Liverpool fans left 96 fans dead and 766 injured.

Although a report issued subsequently by a committee of inquiry found that the fans were not to blame for the disaster – failure of control by the police was the cause – at the time the event was linked to soccer stadium violence, and the authorities declared a relentless war against hooliganism. Hundreds of armed police officers were sent to guard every game, thousands of fans were arrested and mass bans were issued to violent fans to keep them away from matches. The most important measures taken in this connection were to improve the facilities themselves, mainly by constructing orderly seating that produced a more civilized viewing experience and, above all, by installing dozens of security cameras in every stadium, covering every seat and entryway, to prevent a situation where violent fans would hide among thousands of innocent ones.

Putin is trying to stamp out the violence of the local hooligans due to apprehension about Russia’s international image.

But while the incidence of hooliganism in soccer arenas has been fading consistently in England, the phenomenon remains widespread in other leagues in Europe as well as in South America – and in Israel. A case in point is the ugly and violence-marred battle that members of La Familia, a supporters group of the country’s Premier League soccer club Beitar Jerusalem, against the signing of two Chechen players of the Muslim faith in 2012. At the height of the campaign, the club’s offices in the city’s Teddy Stadium were set ablaze. Three months ago, a fan of the team was sentence to 10 years in prison for seriously injuring a Hapoel Tel Aviv team fan by striking him in the head with an axe.

Daniel Wann of Murray State University in Kentucky, whose research program centers on the psychology of sport fandom, explains by phone that, “Sport is one of those areas where spectators are allowed to get away with things they wouldn’t get away with anywhere else. The general fan who is getting drunk in public and curses at the referee – you would never see that anywhere else. So it’s not just ‘hooligans’ that we allow to do things you wouldn’t see elsewhere, it’s across all levels of sports fandom. And it can be a huge problem, because if you sanction that stuff, then it’s harder to put a cap on it when it gets out of control.”

Prof. Spaaij offers a different explanation for the phenomenon. “Sports is almost its own institution, and is allowed to deal with its own issues,” he points out. “It has its own tribunals, its own lawmakers, police, FIFA, the rules of the games, red card, yellow card. If you punch someone in a nightclub, for example, you would be sent to jail, and here you get a one-match suspension. We let sports govern its own affairs. Sports becomes a ritual where aggression is acceptable, sports is almost a time-out from society, it’s an escape.”

‘Keep it up!’

Now, less than two weeks before the start of the World Cup competition, being held this year in Russia, the eyes of the world are trained apprehensively on that country’s own soccer hooligans, who in recent years have become the most violent and extreme in Europe.

In this , Jan. 29, 2013 photo, Beitar Jerusalem F.C. soccer supporters watch a State Cup soccer match against Maccabi Umm al-Fahm F.C. at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.Credit: AP

Tattooed skinheads are driven by a lethal combination of fanatic nationalism, hatred of the West and support for neo-Nazi movements. The most striking demonstration of the phenomenon occurred two years ago during the UEFA Euro championships in France, when hundreds of Russian ruffians gathered in the area of the old port in Marseille and viciously assaulted English soccer fans and local police. Twenty fans were taken to the hospital, two of them in a coma, one fan was left paralyzed and a few suffered deep cuts from metal rods and glass bottles that had been thrown at them. Official Russian elements lost no time in adopting the hooligans as a source of national pride. Thus, Igor Levedev, an official of the Russian Football Union, said, “I don’t see anything terrible about fans fighting... Keep it up!”

Afterward, Lebedev, who is also an MP for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, tried to downplay the problem by claiming that the attackers were simply passionate supporters. On the party’s official website, Lebedev said, according to nordic.businessinsider.com, “Our fans are not hooligans. They suffer for and promote their clubs. They are soccer fans in the truest sense of the word. Yes, they sometimes fight, but only with colleagues and not civilians.” Russia’s deputy prime minister, Vitaly Mutko, who at the time served as sports minister, also came out on the side of the Russian fans, claiming that the whole incident in Marseille had been a trap. President Vladimir Putin wondered how a few hundred Russian fans could have inflicted such serious damage on “a few thousand English hooligans.”

Now, according to media reports, Putin is trying to put the lid back on and stamp out the violence of the local hooligans, not necessarily out of concern for the safety of the foreign fans but because of apprehension about Russia’s international image. But there are some who aren’t willing to take the risk, including many fans of the English team, who, it’s reported, will be present in significantly smaller numbers than in previous World Cup tournaments. Human rights organizations and social movements have also issued special travel alerts for fear of possible violence by the local ruffians, many of who are identified directly with extreme-right wing movements and neo-Nazi organizations.

It’s too early to predict whether the games will pass peacefully and how the hooligans will fare against the truncheons of the Russian police, but there are those who maintain that a massive security presence only escalates the situation. “Our research,” says Martha Newson, “would advise caution when policing heavily, because it’s going to make fans feel more threatened, more exposed, and more desperate to protect their brothers in arms. That’s the mentality that prevails: These are my brothers, I share this deep bond, this real love with them, and I go in and the police are there with tear gas, so what I’m going to do is be even more on the defensive.”

She cites the example of a soccer team in Brazil which, in the wake of serious clashes between police and fans, “got rid of the police in the stadium and introduced ‘security moms’” – a reference to mothers of fans who have been trained to help guard in the stands. That has reduced the “threat level” immensely. “Instead of meeting this brick wall of opposition, [the fans] saw the moms. We don’t need to police and do security in this threatening, oppositional way.”

Newson is seconded by Ramon Spaaij, who notes that there are many moderate fans who come to the game already charged up with a strong “us against them” feeling; fans who feel that the referee is against them, the police are against them. And when they encounter a large police presence, that only heightens their sense that “everyone is against us.”