Banning ‘hooligans’ from travel won’t stop disorder at matches

Picture perfect fan behaviour. Mike Egerton/PA

As fans from all over the world flock to Brazil to support their country’s pursuit of football’s biggest prize, there are 1,452 English and Welsh fans who won’t be joining them. These supporters are serving football banning orders (FBOs), which require them to surrender their passports 10 days before the start of major tournaments to prevent them from causing trouble there. But are FBOs the solution to unruly behaviour by football fans abroad?

The Football Policing Unit are quick to emphasise how important FBOs are for preventing disorder involving England fans abroad. They claim the bans are “highly effective” at preventing hooliganism and remind us of the large-scale disorder witnessed in Marseille at the 1998 World Cup and Charleroi at the 2000 European Championships.

Real causes of ‘hooliganism’

But there is actually no evidence that FBOs have any direct influence on disorder involving English fans abroad. At the time of the 1998 and 2000 disorder, the media reported that the “riots” were caused by a minority of “troublemakers”, who were able to incite drunken English fans to engage in disorder but then melted away into the shadows when arrests started to be made. This was a convenient story for a number of interested parties.

First, it was an exciting story for the media to report, fitting in with sensationalist descriptions of the shame and menace of “football hooliganism”. Second, it was a story that suited the self-confessed “hooligans” and “former hooligans” who had a vested interest in exaggerating their ability to influence the wider crowds to riot. Finally, it let the local police off the hook to a degree -– the disorder wasn’t framed as being their fault, but that of the criminal masterminds who instigated the riot.

Media characterisation of unruly England fans at Euro 2000. Anja Niedringhaus/EPA

This explanation for football-related disorder is, however, a myth. There is simply no reliable evidence suggesting this is why riots involving England fans abroad takes place. In contrast, research carried out by sociologists, criminologists, social-psychologists and ethnographers in crowds of England fans (including in Marseille and Charleroi – I was present at both) points to a different cause: a catastrophic failure by local police to manage a crowd.

In Marseille this consisted of allowing local youths to antagonise and attack England fans in the days preceding the match, before tear-gassing and baton charging all English fans gathered in the Old Port area in response to a handful of bottles thrown in retaliation. This was repeated when fans gathered to watch the match on the big screen at the beach the next day. In Charleroi the police intervention was even worse, water cannoning hundreds of England fans gathered in the town square following a minor incident and confusion that followed as the world’s media tried in vain to get a photograph of some “hooligans” fighting. In both Marseille and Charleroi the police intervention led to some England fans retaliating against the police and to a dramatic escalation in disorder.

Orders ‘on complaint’

Following the disorder at Euro 2000, FBOs “on complaint” were brought in. These allow Magistrates to impose banning orders on those not been convicted of a criminal offence, if an application by the police indicating the individual engaged in football-related disorder or violence was successful. Would these orders have prevented the riots at Marseille or Charleroi? The answer is almost certainly “no”.

UK Football Intelligence Officers present at both “riots” went on record to say that they did not know who most of those engaging in disorder were, and that “known” or “suspected” troublemakers were either not present or not involved. This was supported by statistics indicating that of the 965 England fans arrested in Belgium at Euro 2000, only 30 were known to the British authorities.

Other observations support the argument that banning orders may not be as effective as thought. First, prior to FBOs on complaint, the overwhelming number of matches did not see disorder, despite fans who were known or suspected to be hooligans being present at them. Why was it that disorder occurred in Charleroi, but not Eindhoven? Or Marseille but not Toulouse (where England lost to rivals Argentina)? The presence of “hooligans” simply does not explain the difference in the behaviour of England fans.

Secondly, widespread disorder involving English fans abroad has not been wiped out by FBOs. At the 2004 European Championships, there were two days of serious disorder in Albufeira, when England played a qualifier in Slovakia in 2002 disorder occurred inside the stadium, and at the 2006 World Cup there was disorder involving England fans in both Stuttgart and Cologne. Other serious disorder involving English club teams has also occurred in this period.

Finally, of the 1,452 fans prevented from travelling, it is likely that very few would have travelled to the World Cup in any case. Almost all will have been banned from behaviour (or alleged behaviour) at domestic matches, and only a small proportion of fans of club sides travel abroad to watch England. Indeed, our court observations revealed numerous cases of fans being given banning orders asking how they could surrender a passport when they didn’t own one.

Proportionality and human rights

It is clear that it is not the presence or absence of known hooligans that tells us when disorder will occur, but how a football crowd is managed. Successful crowd management, based on friendly-but-firm policing (rather than emphasising force), realistic tolerance limits (rather than “zero-tolerance” approaches) and genuine communication and fan engagement is the best way to ensure that even a crowd containing drunken fans and known troublemakers will not engage in rioting.

This is not to suggest that FBOs don’t have a role to play in managing football-related violence domestically. Although there is no peer-reviewed research supporting the claim that FBOs reduce hooliganism in the UK, many police forces have credited them with helping them to manage the hooligan “firms” and there is no doubt that much disorder in the UK is connected with those travelling to matches with the intention of engaging in violence.

It is also not to suggest that banning a fan who has been convicted of engagement in football-related violence is not a proportionate or sensible move as part of the punishment for the committal of a criminal offence. But the problem with FBOs on complaint is that they are imposed on fans who have not been found guilty in a court of law. This raises genuine civil libertarian and human rights concerns. Fans should simply not be subjected to such serious restrictions on their freedoms without any evidence that the measures in question actually achieve their aims or are proportionate in doing so.