Football Hooliganism

What is Football Hooliganism?

"Hooliganism" is the term used broadly to describe disorderly, aggressive and often violent behaviour perpetrated by spectators at sporting events. In the UK, hooliganism is almost exclusively confined to football.

Disorderly behaviour has been common amongst football supporters since the birth of the sport, but it is only really since the 1960s that it began to be perceived as a serious problem.

In the 1980s, however, hooliganism became indelibly associated with English football supporters, following a series of major disturbances at home and abroad, which resulted in numerous deaths. Vigorous efforts by governments and the police since then have done much to reduce the scale of hooliganism.

However, it still persists, albeit in new forms. Today, in contrast to the more or less spontaneous upsurges of violence of the past, gangs of rival fans will frequently arrange to meet at specific locations, using mobile phones or the Internet, before and after matches to fight.

Furthermore, while England has the worst international reputation for hooliganism, a number of other countries have similar and growing problems. Today, the highest profile hooliganism problems tend to occur in relation to international matches and events.

In all these countries, some gangs of hooligans share other characteristics, interests and beliefs that incline them towards violent conduct, including links to far-right and racist organisations. Others, however, are apolitical, and are simply composed of men who enjoy fighting.

The term "hooligan" has a disputed derivation, but it is generally accepted to have begun to appear in London police reports in 1898 in relation to violent street gangs.


Although football hooliganism only rose to widespread public attention in the 1960s, it had been with the sport since its earliest development. In the late 19th Century, concerns were frequently voiced about groups of "roughs" causing trouble at matches by attacking not only opposing supporters, but also players and referees. Many sociologists point to football's origins in working class Britain as a factor distinguishing it from the majority of sports popular today, and contributing to its links with aggressive and disorderly behaviour.

Although football became more "respectable" in the interwar period, and violence went into decline, levels of disorder and public concern about them rose sharply in the 1960s, in conjunction with a number of other moral panics, relating to new youth cultures and growing racial tensions. In this context, football stadiums rapidly became identified as public spaces where large scale threatening ritual displays and fights could be staged.

Gangs emerged staking their claims to certain "territories" within football grounds, and strong "tribal" loyalties grew up intermingling gang mentality and support for particular teams. The territorial factor is widely accepted to be the principal reason behind the particular rivalries between neighbouring teams and the susceptibility to violence of derby matches - although other local factors are prominent in some cities (eg sectarianism in Glasgow).

It should be noted that in the 1960s, football violence was considerably worse in many other European countries than in the UK: in the early 1960s, the Football League sought to pull English teams out of European competitions for fear of the threat posed by foreign fans. However, studies have shown that football violence outside the UK is largely a postwar phenomenon.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, football violence was largely confined to football stadiums, but the trend since then has been increasingly to move outside. In the 1990s, following the introduction of all-seater stadiums, in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, nearly all large-scale football violence occured outside stadiums.

A watershed in the history of English football hooliganism was the Heysel disaster of 1985, in which a "charge" by Liverpool fans at rival Juventus supporters caused a wall to collapse, resulting in 39 deaths. English teams were banned from European club competitions until 1990, and during this time, substantial efforts were made by the police to bring the problem under control. Simultaneously, considerable efforts were also made in the 1980s by football clubs themselves to eliminate racism amongst fans.

The Public Order Act 1986 permitted courts to ban supporters from grounds, while the Football Spectators Act 1989 provided for banning convicted hooligans from attending international matches. The Football (Disorder) Act 1999 changed this from a discretionary power of the courts to a duty to make orders. The Football Disorder Act 2000 abolished the distinction between domestic and international bans.

The Football Offences Act 1991 created specific offences of throwing missiles onto pitches, participating in indecent or racist chanting and going onto the pitch without lawful authority.

In Scotland, a new law was introduced in March 2012 to deal with the growing problem of threatening behaviour particularly in relation to inciting religious hatred. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 creates two new offences: Offensive Behaviour related to football and Threatening Communications. The former covers expressing or inciting religious, racial or other forms of hatred and and threatening behaviour at or on the way to a regulated football match. The latter relates to threats of serious violence and threats intended to stir up religious hatred sent via the internet or other communications.


The excesses of football hooligans since the 1980s would lead few to defend it as "harmless fun" or a matter of "letting off steam" as it was frequently portrayed in the 1970s. Explanations for the phenomenon are wide and varied.

Moreover, while hooliganism has declined in overall scale, it continues to occur in new and sometimes more alarming forms. In April 2000, Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight, two Leeds United supporters, were stabbed to death in Istanbul ahead of a UEFA Cup semi-final, in what the coroner's inquest described as "an organised ambush" by Turkish fans.

The extent to which large-scale hooliganism and rioting is now primarily an international phenomenon (and as the absence of crowd trouble at the 1996 World Cup in the USA would suggest, a European phenomenon) raises a new series of problems.

Frequently, incidents result in recriminations against local police forces, which are accused of targeting, provoking or otherwise mistreating foreign fans. The role of local police forces is evidenced by the lack of problems experienced during the Euro 2000 competition, which was co-hosted by the Netherlands and Belgium: the Dutch police, which has strong international links and a criminal intelligence service experienced in monitoring football violence, successfully contained those incidents that did occur in their territory, while the Belgian police fared far worse.

The influence of alcohol on football violence is also a disputed factor. In the past, when hooliganism was more "spontaneous", there was clear evidence that many of those involved were drunk. Efforts to ban alcohol from grounds and to monitor and control behaviour in pubs in the vicinity of grounds has had an impact on this sort of disorder. However, alcohol would appear to have little role to play in the "new" organised football violence.

The media is also invoked as contributing to football violence. Although reports are uniformly critical (apart from where blame may appear to lie with foreign fans or police), studies have suggested that the language of war and combat employed by the media in covering football reinforce the aggressive and confrontational perception of the sport. Headlines such as the Daily Mirror's "Achtung! Surrender!", printed ahead of England's match with Germany in June 1996, have been particularly criticised in this regard.

Ironically, perhaps one of the most significant factors in reducing the problem of hooliganism has been the widening interest in the sport and the influx of huge sums of money. At the same time, however, the influence of improved police technology and methods and a new unwillingness to tolerate hooliganism as "a bit of a laugh" have pushed it away from the mainstream and into its new, less overt forms.


Football-related arrests and banning orders: Season 2010-11:

Total attendance in excess of 37 million at regulated football matches. The total number of arrests represents less than 0.01% of all spectators, or 1 arrest for every 12,249 spectators.

During 2010-11 season the total number of people arrested in connection with all international and domestic football (“regulated”) matches involving teams from, or representing, England and Wales was 3,089. This represents a decrease of 9%, or 302 arrests, on 2009-10 totals.

The downwards trend in football-related arrests is continuing, but there is no complacency.

This covers all arrests designated in law under schedule 1 of the Football Spectators Act 1989 (as amended) reported by police to the Football Banning Orders Authority. This includes football specific offences (e.g. throwing missiles in a stadium, pitch encroachment) and a wide range of generic criminal offences committed in connection with a football match. This covers such arrests at any place within a period of 24 hours either side of a match.

During the season an average of less than 1 (0.97) arrest made per match (inside and outside of stadia).

No arrests at 71% of all matches. Two arrests or less were made at 86% of matches.
51% of all matches were police free – continuing to free up police resources to deal with local police and community priorities.

More than 60,000 English and Welsh club fans travelled to Champions League and Europa League matches outside of England and Wales. These 40 matches resulted in just 14 arrests of away fans.

No football-related arrests of England or Wales supporters at overseas matches.

The number of football banning orders remained steady, decreasing slightly to 3,173 on 29th November 2011 from 3,248 on 19th November 2009. This represents 962 new banning orders imposed during the period (1,025 orders were imposed during the previous reporting period).

Orders are time limited and expiring all the time.

Banning orders work – around 92% of individuals whose orders have expired since 2000 are assessed by police as no longer posing a risk of football disorder.

Source: Home Office – December 2011


"Most clubs in the Premier League play to full houses and most of their supporters are season-ticket holders. Clubs will ban any person who is arrested or ejected from a stadium and supporters do not misbehave as they would risk losing their season ticket.

"A number of football clubs have also introduced travel clubs for their away matches – clubs will only issue tickets for an away match to supporters who are members of the travel club. Anyone who misbehaves risks losing their travel club membership and therefore the right to a ticket for an away match."

The Football Association - November 2011

"The passing of this Act sends out an important message about the kind of Scotland we want to live in and tells the bigots in no uncertain terms that this behaviour will not be tolerated in a modern Scotland.

"By all means enjoy the banter and passionate support for your football teams, even passionate opposition of other football teams – it is the lifeblood of football. But sectarianism and other expressions of hate are not acceptable and it is time for it to stop. Those engaging in it will face the full force of the law."

Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Roseanna Cunningham, commenting on the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act - March 2012

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