A-League fans: don’t label them football hooligans

Soccer fans in NSW in 2005 after a disturbance between supporters of rival teams. AAP

The late Johnny Warren deftly described some Australians’ attitude to football as being a game for “sheilas, wogs, and poofters”.

Whilst public interest has increased markedly following successive World Cups, a certain distance between Aussies and the world game notably persists – evident, for instance, in the local media’s frequent use of the American appellation, “soccer”.

This outsider image of football was readily apparent in the response to a small number of crowd disturbances towards the close of last season’s Hyundai A-League.

Speaking in February 2011, Superintendent of the Victorian Police Rod Wilson publicly declared that many of his officers had become “scared” of certain sections of Melbourne Victory’s supporter base. The problem has got so bad in the last seven matches, he said, that at one game, 23 supporters were ejected from the ground, and at another 14 flares were let off in crowded areas – as a result, many of his officers would now “rather volunteer for other sporting events”.

The solution, according to the Superintendent, “is that the Victory Club, the FFA – the governing body – and the Police, and the security, need to come together, and we need to resolve this […] to make the game safe”.

The football club have indicated that while they agree this sort of behaviour is “unacceptable”, they contend that it is not a ubiquitous feature of Melbourne Victory supporters.

Careful who you call a hooligan

The divergence in view is not merely definitional – its characterisation has consequences.

Whereas “football hooliganism” is typically reserved for those highly-coordinated violent and non-violent skirmishes between opposing sets of supporters that occur quite independently of the game itself, the term ‘football-related violence’ is employed where aggressions are predominately directed toward players and officials in the form of chants, taunts and violent displays in response to the events on the field.

However inadvertently, the use of the media by Victorian Police has served to amplify scattered incidents of spectator disorderliness into the image of the football hooligan. However, there is little historical evidence to suggest the level of salience and coordination necessary for that either characterisation is at all justified - in Melbourne or anywhere else in Australia.

Quite simply the Superintendent has contributed to the collective memory of the few, by making folk devils out of what appears to be an exceptionally small number of Melbourne Victory supporters.

In so doing the police have merely reaffirmed the outsider image of football that persists in Australia. Ill-advisedly, the Superintendent also seems to believe that it is the Police that “set standards in this city, about how we believe people should behave”. This implies that the police view themselves, not just as the enforcers of societal norms, but also as its moral entrepreneurs.

The false identification of the supporters as hooligans demands that the Victoria Police consider carefully their policing methods in light of the existing literature and European experience - given we can only assume their public statements are to influence their policing strategy for the coming season.

Contending approaches to football hooliganism

Scholars have examined the issue of violence surrounding football matches – especially football hooliganism in Europe – for decades. The different approaches may be usefully categorised as being predominately: “behavioural”, “ideational” or “relational”.

The ideational approach, evident in the statements by the Victoria Police, emphasises the ideas and actions of the individual in instigating and maintaining violent incidents. The implication is that targeted, aggressive policies might suppress or eliminate the destructive ideas of the hooligan element from an otherwise well-behaved group of spectators.

Behavioural advocates, who incidentally dominate the sociological scholarship into football hooliganism in Britain, stress the role of the individual. In this approach, the core drivers of collective violence are considered: the primal instincts inherent within masculinity, the attainment of respect from peers, the forging of identities, and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.

Least common in football hooliganism scholarship historically is the relational approach that elevates the influence of conversational transactions between people and groups, such that collective violence amounts to a conversation among participants. For its proponents, the relational approach explains the variability of violence by way of interactions, motives, impulses and opportunities inherent in the social relations of those involved.

Whereas the Victorian Police appear to favour the ideational approach, I would argue that violence at football matches is most often best studied as a hybrid of the behavioural and relational approach. Thus, football hooliganism is viewed as a kind of conversation between and among participants as they navigate what separates “us” from “them” – a feature that enables it to be studied as a “violent ritual” amongst other types of collective violence such as brawls, scattered attacks, and international conflict.

For students of collective violence, violent rituals occur when well-defined and coordinated group/s follow a known interaction script that typically results in the infliction of damage on others within a recognised arena. Team sporting events, especially ones with opposing “ends” (i.e. fans sitting in different sections of the ground) such as football, are ripe for the construction of violent and non-violent rituals as a result of the creation and activation of us-them boundaries.

In this way, as Charles Tilly once expertly remarked, “collective violence resembles weather: complicated, changing, and unpredictable in some regards, yet resulting from similar causes variously combined in different times and places”.

Lessons from Europe

Research I have conducted into Italian, German and British hooliganism that occurred between 1863 and 1989 suggests that a small number of causal mechanisms – there it was nationalism and masculinity – serve to create, escalate and sustain violent interactions between and among football spectators.

Simply put, the relationship between nationalism and masculinity only becomes “real” through social practice; at the football, the songs that are chanted, and the expression of strength and prowess on the field all serve to engender an imagined community amongst many supporters where masculinities and national identities can be forged. Whilst nationalism and masculinity primarily reinforce each other, in some instances, masculinity serves to create bonds across national groups of hooligans such that their behaviours are, at times, tempered towards opposing fans such as Dads, children and women.

Studying spectator disorderliness in this way raises three implications for those tasked with responding to last season’s incidents in Melbourne. First, it is the extent of coordination and salience that best identifies causal mechanisms behind collective claim making. Second, whilst different types of collective violence might have similar motives, it is their own unique casual mechanisms and processes that may best explain why they occur. Third, where brokerage and boundary activation are present, previously peaceful interactions between participants may shift rapidly into violence.

Here’s hoping the Victoria Police rethink their policing strategy for the A-League 2011/12 season – for to do so would recognise that collective violence is a sort of conversation among and between its participants, which cannot be combatted by merely suppressing violent ideas and punishing loutish behaviour.

One small step would be to refrain from again amplifying the actions of a few unruly football fans by inappropriately labelling them as hooligans in the media.