Football Violence
in Europe

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Executive summary


Football violence in history

Theoretical and research perspectives

Cross-national variations in football violence in Europe

Media coverage of football hooliganism

Racism and football fans

Football violence and alcohol

Tackling football violence

Selected Bibliography

Dr Peter Marsh et al (1996)
Football Violence in Europe.
The Amsterdam Group.

Football violence and alcohol

Little research on football hooliganism has included a specific focus on the role of alcohol. Work by John Williams1 and Richard Giulianotti2 includes discussion of the possible 'aggravating' effects in the case of English and Scottish fans, but few empirical data are presented concerning consumption rates or specific effects of alcohol. For most researchers and theorists, the issue of alcohol is, at best, peripheral and in Italian work it is, as we might expect, not considered at all.

The 'alcohol- violence connection'

This is in stark contrast to media coverage of football fan behaviour, particularly in the UK. Here 'drunkenness' is by far the most often reported cause of violent disorder, even in circumstances where there is no evidence of excessive drinking. In line with this populist view, most official enquiries into football hooliganism have dwelt on the 'problem' of alcohol and urged its restriction at football matches. Even government sponsored publications concerning Crime Prevention Initiatives include sweeping conclusions about the 'dangers' of alcohol consumption by football fans:

"Some offences are alcohol-related by definition - drink-driving for example. But these are by no means the only ones where alcohol plays a large part. Public disorder, including football hooliganism and vandalism is particularly associated with it."

Controls on the availability of alcohol at football matches have now existed for some time in Britain3 and the European Parliament has recently included a Europe-wide ban on alcohol in its recommendations. Much of the EP debate, however, was driven by British and German MEPs and it is clear that alcohol is seen as a significant factor in this context only by northern Europeans.

Consideration of the association between drinking and football hooliganism lies within a much broader debate concerning the role of alcohol in the generation of violent and criminal behaviour. This issue has been reviewed at length in other publications and we will not dwell here on the complexities of the issue.4 It is clear, however, that the perceived alcohol-violence connection is primarily restricted to Northern European and Anglo Saxon cultures. Elsewhere in the world quite contrary perceptions exist. Where alcohol can be shown to have a direct impact on levels of aggression and anti-social behaviour, the effect is largely mediated by immediate social factors and more general, pervasive cultural expectations.

Culture and alcohol

The cultural nature of the relationship between alcohol and football is evident from a rare 'natural experiment' involving Aston Villa fans attending a European Cup Final against Bayern Munich in the Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam. This took place in 1982 at a time when concern about the drinking behaviour of English fans was at a peak. The bar at the back of the terraces occupied by Villa fans served lager which, unknown to them, was alcohol-free. (Bayern fans had access to 'normal' lager). John Williams comments on this 'trick' in Hooligans Abroad:

" … Villa supporters who made the endless trek back and forth to the bars, carrying six cartons with the aid of a specially designed cardboard tray, believed themselves to be en route to getting well and truly 'steaming' … To get drunk in the Villa end that night, one would need to drink more than the 'lager' on sale to English fans. What officials later described as the 'big con' was in full swing. While fans in other sections of the ground were sinking the real thing, Villa fans were the subject of a non-alcoholic delusion." 5

Ambivalence about alcohol

While most observers of this 'con' noted with interest the apparently 'drunken' behaviour of Villa fans, Williams is more ambivalent about the extent to which the effects of alcohol are psychologically mediated. He suggests, for example, that the drunkenness in some cases might have been 'real' and due to drinking prior to the game - a suggestion for which he offers no evidence. Elsewhere in Williams' writing the ambivalence concerning alcohol is replaced with self-contradictory stances. Take, for example, his view expressed at a conference in 1989:

"We are regularly told that it is drink which releases the full force of this natural wickedness, and that curbs on drinking will bottle it up. Someone should inform the Danes and the Irish of these findings. Supporters from these countries were among the most drunken and the most friendly fans in West Germany. The message might also reach UEFA who sanctioned a major brewer as the Championships' sponsor!"

This dismissal of the relevance of alcohol by Williams is followed, three years later, by a non sequitor call for restrictions on the availability of alcohol to British fans abroad:

"We recommend that for the foreseeable future, and with the support of the continental authorities concerned, an alcohol ban should operate for all England matches on the continent."6

Other inconsistencies are evident in Williams' work and it is, perhaps, ironic that he should make such recommendations given his insistence that football violence derives from deeply entrenched social factors within British society rather than from immediate situational or psychological processes.

The roligans

The Danish fans, about whose 'drunken but friendly' behaviour Williams makes favourable comment, are an interesting example. The Danish 'Roligans' are fanatical football supporters who are renowned for their levels of beer consumption. They are also Northern European and might be expected, therefore, to be among those for whom group drinking sessions often end in belligerence and fighting. Their conduct, however, is quite different from that associated with English fans and, to a lesser extent with their German and Dutch contemporaries. The analysis provided by Eichberg of the Danish Sport Research Institute sums up their distinctiveness succinctly:

"The roligan displays a feature which links him with his counterpart, the hooligan: excessive alcohol consumption. English, Irish and Danish fans compete for the position of being the most drunk - yet fundamentally different behaviour patterns arise. Where the heavy drinking of English hooligans impels aggression and violence, the roligan is characterised by the absence of violence and companiable cheerfulness." 7

The behaviour of Danish fans at Euro '96, has also been the subject of much favourable comment by the media and the police. Commenting on the amusing and good-natured antics of the Danes in Sheffield, Cathy Cassell and Jon Rea 8 noted:

"Such characteristics endeared Sheffielders towards them. No matter how much lager they consumed, and how badly the team performed, the atmosphere wherever they congregated was nothing short of a party. The city did well out of it … Numerous pubs ran dry. The police and council officials expressed their amazement that such amounts of beer could be consumed by so many football supporters with no trouble at all."

The police view

The 'surprise' expressed by the police about the good-natured drunkenness of Danish fans is understandable given their assumptions about alcohol and hooliganism in the UK. We should note, however, that the police are less ready to blame drink than some newspaper reports have suggested. A study was conducted of the views of Police Commanders who were responsible for crowd control at all 92 English League clubs. They were asked "How serious an influence is heavy drinking in contributing to football-related disorder in your town?". Concerning Home fans, only 11% saw it as being the 'single most serious influence', while a further 20% rated it as 'serious'. Almost half of the Commanders felt that alcohol was an influence, but not a serious one, while the remainder felt that it was not an influence at all. Their views regarding visiting Away fans, however, were  a little different. Here 18% felt that alcohol was the most significant influence while 35% rated it as serious.

These are, of course, views rather than empirical facts and based upon, we presume, observations that many fans in the UK, and away fans in particular, tend to consume alcohol prior to engaging in acts of hooliganism. Despite the implicit assumptions, however, this does not mean that acts of hooliganism would necessarily be less frequent if alcohol were less readily available, or likely to increase in frequency when drinking levels were higher.

Take, for example, the extensions to licensing hours in Manchester and elsewhere during Euro '96. At the time Commander John Purnell, head of policing for the championships, was concerned about such 'liberalising' of drinking: "History shows that a tiny minority will drink more than they can handle and, while under the influence of alcohol, will behave badly." The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, also joined the debate, claiming that the magistrates and Licensing Justices in Manchester were acting "incongruously and inappropriately".

The fears of Commander Purnell and Michael Howard were largely unfounded. There were very few reported incidences of trouble during the tournament. The only event of significance took place in London, where licenses had notbeen extended.

Unexpected consequences of alcohol bans

Increasing restrictions on the availability of alcohol at football matches may not only be inappropriate but possibly have negative side-effects. There is increasing evidence that such restrictions are already prompting some fans to substitute a variety of drugs for lager. John Williams has already noted an increase in the use of cannabis as a direct consequence of the potential penalties for being in possession of alcohol in a British football stadium. Others note the increased use of MDMA (ecstasy) in such contexts. Evidence of a more concrete kind concerning unanticipated effects of restrictions comes from a study in the United States, the implications of which are generalisable to other countries and settings. Boyes and Faith conducted a detailed study of the impact of a ban on alcohol at (American) football games at Arizona State University. They hypothesised that such a ban would lead to 'intertemporal' substitution of the consumption of alcohol  - i.e. fans would increase their consumption immediately prior to, and after leaving the football games. Such substitution, they argued could more more damaging than the effects which might arise from intoxication within the stadium and such negative consequences could be measured in, for example, increased numbers of fans driving before and after the match while over the legal BAC limit. The authors argued that there were three reasons to expect such a consequence:

"First, alcohol in the body does not dissipate quickly … Thus the effects of increased drinking in the period prior to the regulated period may carry over into the regulated period. Second, the level of intoxication, during any period depends on the rate of consumption as well as the volume. Thus, even if there is not a one-for-one substitution of consumption from the restricted period to the adjacent unregulated periods, average intoxication taken over the adjacent and unregulated periods can increase. Third, studies indicate that the probability of having a traffic accident increases at an increasing level of intoxication. Thus, the social costs of drinking and driving in the unregulated periods may increase." 9

Boyes and Faith examined police data concerning alcohol-related driving accidents, detected DWI (Driving while intoxicated) cases and other measures for the periods before and after the restrictions on alcohol in the stadium. They found significant increases of up to 40% in blood alcohol concentrations in drivers stopped by the police. This is despite an increase in the penalties for DWI and an increase in the legal driving age in the postban period.

The implications of this study are very relevant to restrictions on alcohol at British football stadiums. They also suggest that the recent proposals from European Parliament committees for a Europe-wide ban on alcohol at football matches may be misguided. If alcohol is a significant determinant of anti-social behaviour, directly or indirectly, the effects of intertemporal substitution of drinking, which alcohol bans are likely to generate, will tend to increase the likelihood of aggression both prior to and shortly after the games. Such behaviour, of course, is also likely to occur outside of the stadiums where, it is more difficult to police and control.

The case of the Scots

If total bans on alcohol at football games are inappropriate, for the reasons discussed above, alternative means need to be explored for modifying alcohol-related behaviour among football fans, and English fans in particular. This may seem an impossible prospect. The change in the behaviour of Scottish fans, however, is of interest in this context. We noted earlier in Section 3 that although Scottish fans are often 'heavy' consumers of alcohol, the belligerent behaviour which used to be associated with their drinking has changed quite substantially over the last ten to fifteen years. As Giulianotti 10 has noted, the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act of 1980, which prohibits the possession of alcohol at, or in transit to, a football match, has done little to dent the degree to which alcohol is very much part of the football experience. Nonetheless, it is generally agreed that the 'drunkenness' of Scottish fans now presents far less of a threat to law and order than it might once have done.

This transformation of Scottish fan behaviour, according to Giulianotti, has come about through their desire to distance themselves from their English rivals and to present an image of themselves throughout Europe as the 'friendly' supporters. In pursuit of this aim the meaning of alcohol has been substantially altered and now, instead of being a precursor to aggression and fights, is the 'liquid' facilitation of positive social affect and good humour.

Although some 'traditional' drunken fighting remains among Scottish fan groups, the majority seem to have moved away from the English 'hooligan' model to one which is more characteristic of the Danish roligans. If this radical change of behaviour can occur among the Scots, without any apparent decline in their consumption levels, then we must assume that similar shifts are possible in English fan culture. While drinking among Dutch and German fans generally presents less of a problem, we might also anticipate the possibility of further change in these groups as well.

Dr Peter Marsh et al (1996) Football Violence in Europe. The Amsterdam Group.


3. e.g. Football (Offences) Act 1991

4. See, for example, P. Marsh and K. Fox, 1992; M. Sumner and H. Parker, 1995

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