World Cup shines a light on persistent domestic violence

Not a pretty sight for some. Menzl Guenter

Football can be a violent game. While this year’s World Cup has not been marked by serious violence on the pitch, games are hard fought and there have been a handful of red cards already. Off the pitch, however, violent behaviour accompanies the game and the link between domestic violence and football is longstanding.

Football matches are policed by the laws of the game and a team of officials to enforce them, containing the physical aggression that emerges on the pitch. But this isn’t so in the front rooms of the male fans who lash out after watching their home team win or lose. There are no red or yellow cards distributed for domestic violence during a football game.

Research on the past three world cups found that reports of domestic violence incidents spiked by 38% in some areas when England lost a match. But significant increases are also recorded when they win or draw. This year, there have already been reports of a rise in incidents in the county of Kent during England’s first game against Italy. And these statistics are likely to be under-representative – they are derived from victims calling 999 to report abuse and so do not include the number of women who suffer in silence.

At violent moments in football matches, there are at least onlookers poised to impose sanctions. Indeed, the investment in the physical well-being of all those involved is huge. The treatment of injuries is instant and camera footage can be used to see who has committed an assault, in what circumstances and justice is meted out either instantaneously or after the game if it’s missed.

But women and children who face domestic violence at the hands of their football fan husbands or partners do not have the same support system to leap to their defence. Intervention can be slow to materialise and there are no expensive treatments to fix the injuries. One of their few forms of defence is noncompliance and there is rarely a level playing field in terms of strength.

Coercive control

What divides the abusive perpetrators of domestic violence from other male fans is the need to coercively control their female partners and children. This coercion that underpins assault often remains hidden. It goes on behind closed doors and women often do not come forward about their abuse for a number of reasons.

For victimised women, the threat of football-related abuse is likely to have a slow and arduous build up. Maybe she remembers the 2010 World Cup as a sequence of personal nightmares. Perhaps she watched the TV ads with increasing dread. The weekly shop now includes a stockpile of alcohol that’s consumed while watching the game, and the tension at home mounts.

In these circumstances women and children will begin adapting long before the need for outside intervention. The threat of impending violence forces compliance to the dominator’s wishes. He may smash half the house in a rage, but during the World Cup the TV will be untouched.

What can we learn about domestic violence from the link between football and increased reporting during tournaments like the World Cup? Wimbledon does not have the same impact on competitiveness or testosterone among spectators. Nor does tennis have the same links with alcohol and displays of male aggression.

So there must be a particularly base version of masculinity that’s espoused in the football experience. Football provides a context in which gang culture dominates and women are viewed as trophies and commodities. Furthermore, drinking and violence become fused with a sense of male community in this culture.

This is an older version of masculinity that has to find a common ground in the violent reassertion of male privilege in the home. These factors make domestic violence more visible in this World Cup season, but they are not more prevalent than usual. What we need to develop is a sharper focus on the less visible but equally damaging coercive control that will run on past the World Cup season.

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