How football turns fans from Jekyll to Hyde
Even seemingly sane people find euphoria in abusing their rivals
A few years ago, I was invited to a game at White Hart Lane by a friend. I went to his house and we travelled on to the ground in a people carrier. Along with my friend, there were four other Tottenham Hotspur supporters. One was a teacher, I seem to remember, and another a lawyer, and we chatted amiably en route.
Only as we came within sight of the stadium, and saw other fans walking along the roads of north London, did three of my fellow travellers undergo what I can only describe as a metamorphosis. Their language became coarser. They began to chant not merely about their support for Spurs but their contempt for Chelsea. Their eyes had taken on a new gleam.
By the time we took our seats, they were in full voice, making obscene gestures to opposition fans, and issuing abusive comments that would have been inconceivable just 30 minutes earlier. They seemed like different people. Let us call it fan-morphosis.
I was thinking of all this in the context of a spate of recent scandals. Jake Livermore, the West Bromwich Albion midfielder, clashed with a fan of West Ham United during the game between the clubs last week. It is alleged that the fan mocked the midfielder about his son, who died in 2014 when his partner went into labour. Livermore had been so devastated that he spiralled into drugs and depression.
A few days later, a story emerged about Dunfermline Athletic midfielder Dean Shiels, who was abused by fans at a game against Falkirk. Shiels lost his eye in a domestic accident at the age of eight, and had it removed 12 years later. Falkirk fans threw fake eyes on to the pitch during the game and taunted him. Kenny Shiels, his father and the manager of Derry City, said that this was not uncommon. “It’s not just a few [supporters],” he said. “It’s not nice for a boy that’s mapped out a career in professional football. With his handicap, it is a fantastic achievement.”
The idea that football has a problem with fan culture is hardly original. Anyone who has heard chanting involving the Munich air disaster, or the Hillsborough tragedy, or the wrongly alleged paedophilic tendencies of a high-profile manager, will acknowledge that egregious behaviour, while limited to a minority, is widespread. Indeed, TV directors often resist close-ups at throw-ins and corners because of the sheer number of fans in the front rows who swear at the players, faces contorted, while making obscene gestures.
Yet why does football suffer with this kind of thuggery? Why do perfectly ordinary people seem to transmogrify into snarling yobs within the proximity of a stadium? My growing sense is that this is less to do with tribalism per se, than with a kind of mass intoxication. For those who like to consider themselves ultras, the expression of hatred on Saturday has become their mind-altering experience. They are not fans of football, but of the high associated with intense, if temporary, loathing.
Consider Bill Buford, an American author who infiltrated English football in the 1980s. A time of hooliganism, perhaps the most extreme form of fan animosity. Buford had supposed that these spasms of hostility were about turf wars, or local grievances. In the event, he found something quite different. “I had not expected the violence to be so pleasurable,” he wrote. “This is, if you like, the answer to the hundred-dollar question: why do young males riot? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hallucinogenic drugs, or behaved rebelliously. Violence is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience.”
Isn’t this the basic explanation, too, for the expressions of mass hatred that we hear in and around stadiums? Take the religious animosity that so often attends the Old Firm derby. Some have suggested that this reflects genuine grievance, but this is hardly likely in a cosmopolitan country where few people care about religious denominations. As Paul Davis, a sociologist at the University of Sunderland, has put it: “The vast majority of modern-day Scots, including a decisive majority in the West, do not care or pretend to care about Catholics and Protestants, or Loyalists and Rebels, any more than they care about the Great Pumpkin.”
No, this is not about sectarianism, but fan-morphosis. It is about the drama of spite. For what better way for two sets of supporters to work themselves up into a frenzy of hatred than to hark back to the bitter wounds of the past?
What better way to experience the anarchic rush of abuse and loathing before returning to the constraints of real life? As Laurence Macintyre, head of safety at Rangers, put it: “It is called a 90minute bigot, someone who has got a friend of an opposite religion living next door. But for that 90 minutes they shout foul religious abuse at each other.”
Similarly, I doubt those who hiss when confronting Spurs fans do so out of support for the Holocaust (the sound denotes gas entering extermination chambers such as Auschwitz).
No, this is about entering a state of contrived animosity, a way of making a slur so profane that moral constraints melt away in a mutual orgy of loathing. It is not ideological; it is hallucinogenic.
And this is why I suspect that if those who chant the most graphic insults at Arsene Wenger were to meet him outside the stadium, they’d probably ask for his autograph. It is why if fans who chant the Munich song were to meet the bereaved families, they’d offer sympathy.
And it is why if the guys with whom I went to White Hart Lane were to bump into a rival fan at any other gathering, they’d be perfectly amicable. It is only at football that they express hatred, for that’s what the game, for a critical mass of fans, demands.
It is worth emphasising, however, that just because this kind of behaviour is typically limited to stadiums, as well as the online fan forums that increasingly operate as their digital extension, it does not provide mitigation.
But the authorities will only get to grips with a problem that has long distorted the game if they diagnose its underlying pathology. It is time to admit that much of the abuse in football is not about tribalism, or politics, or moral nihilism, or social class. It is about an anti-social, quasi-narcotic high.
What better way to experience the anarchic rush of abuse and loathing before returning to the constraints of real life?