Fights, riots, tear gas: football in the dock

Thuggery: Some are now questioning whether Russia should host the 2018 World Cup. © PA

Our football correspondent was in Marseille for England v Russia and witnessed the fighting. The teams have been threatened with expulsion. Does the problem lie in football itself?

Fireworks exploding. People running for the exit, trampling women and children. A fan in a wheelchair left behind and assaulted.

This was the scene as Russian football fans attacked their England counterparts, at the end of their sides’ 1-1 draw on Saturday.

There had been three days of violence in the French city of Marseille. Gangs of Russian and local hooligans attacked England fans, some of whom fought police and threw bottles and chairs.

The Day‘s football correspondent was there. In just 24 hours, he saw several fights and, on four occasions, the police firing tear gas.

‘There were Russian gangs prowling around looking for trouble,’ he said. ‘It made the city seem like a war zone.’

Police said 35 people were wounded. One England fan was ‘hovering between life and death’; another was reportedly attacked with an axe – leaving his head bleeding ‘like a tap’. Similar scenes were reported along the coast in Nice as Northern Ireland prepared to play Poland.

Football has attracted violence for centuries. In 1314 Edward II of England banned the game, fearing unrest and treason. The hundreds of people who played in matches often used them to settle blood feuds or disputes over land. From the 1960s to the 1980s, hooliganism became known as ‘the English disease’, particularly after the Heysel disaster in 1985.

But the issue is a global problem. Rioting caused the game’s worst-ever disaster to date, when 318 people died at a game in Peru in 1964. In 2012, 74 died during a riot in Egypt. Many clubs have groups of ‘ultras’ – fanatical followers who are often infiltrated by nationalist groups.

Why does football attract this behaviour? Author Gerry Finn says ‘the intense identity’ which it inculcates makes fans feel personally bound to defend their team. And sociologist Eric Dunning says supporters express other loyalties through sport: for example, fans are often divided along political or sectarian lines.

So is violence inherently part of football?

Soccer punch

Critics think so. Football is a tribal game which makes a virtue of dividing people. Playing aggressively, antagonising the opposing side and abusing opposing players are condoned or even welcomed. It is played in a masculine atmosphere; fans are fuelled by testosterone and alcohol. Violence is inevitably part of this culture.

Hang on, respond fans. Football is often rowdy but usually peaceful. In Marseille, the police were partly to blame. Intolerant people may associate themselves with football, but few fans accept them or share their political leanings. Football attracts huge crowds, making it a magnet for trouble-makers — but as progress in the UK shows, they can be beaten.

You Decide

  1. Do you feel personally ashamed of the events in Marseille?
  2. Is football inherently violent?


  1. Think of a football team (at club or national level) that interests you. Do they have a history of football hooliganism? Use the internet to find out as much as possible in 20 minutes. Report your findings to your class.
  2. Choose a football match from history which was hit by hooliganism (eg the 1985 Heysel disaster). Prepare a one-page memo explaining what happened and why.

Some People Say...

“Mob rule makes sensible people behave terribly.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t follow football. Does this affect me?
Football hooliganism shines a light on many aspects of our human nature — for example, how we behave in crowds and how tribal loyalties can affect us. This goes beyond football and has implications for you, and the people around you. The governance of football affects the people you know who do care about it. And even if you do not watch football, matches will probably take place in your town, or in places you visit on holiday.
But I would never get involved in a fight. Should I care about mindless idiots who do?
A lot of people who were affected this weekend were innocent people who just wanted to enjoy a hobby. Anyone, no matter how placid they are personally, can get caught up in violence — so it is worth considering its causes.

Word Watch

Reports suggested gangs of locals had attacked both sets of fans.
An average of 25 hooligan incidents a year were reported in England alone in this decade.
At the 1985 European Cup final, Liverpool fans caused a stampede, killing 39 Juventus supporters. English clubs were banned from European competition for five years in response. Violence also dogged the England national team in the 1980s.
Peru fans rioted after the referee disallowed a late goal against rivals Argentina.
Fans of Egyptian side al-Masry attacked fans and players of al-Ahly after a match.
Not all these groups are violent, but some attack rival fans. In the UK, several clubs have ‘firms’ who pre-arrange fights with opposition fans.
In the UK, Chelsea and Rangers have become associated with groups such as the National Front and even neo-Nazi terrorists Combat 18.
In Scotland, Rangers fans represent protestant unionism whereas Celtic fans are seen as pro-Irish and Catholic. In Spain, Barcelona are the club of Catalonia; Real Madrid represent the nation’s capital.

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