In their longitudinal examination of local and national newspaper
reports of soccer hooliganism in Britain Dunning, E., Murphy, P. J. and Williams,
J. (1986) concluded that hooliganism has been a feature of soccer crowds
for about 100 years (Dunning et al. 1986, p. 8). They note that there were
periods of decline until the mid-1960s when soccer hooliganism became a “cause
for material concern” (Dunning et al. 1986, p. 8). Indeed, Taylor states
that “there is no equivalent period in British soccer history to the 25-year
period of more or less continuous soccer hooliganism beginning in 1961” (Taylor,
1984, p. 176). This study presents, places and portrays these soccer hooligan
gangs within the larger context of British professional soccer during this
No event illustrates the social phenomenon of “soccer hooliganism”
more dramatically than the deaths of 39 Italian spectators at the European
Cup Final between the Liverpool Football Club and the Italian team Juventus,
played at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium on May 29,1985 at the hands
of soccer hooligans from Liverpool, England (Kerr, 1994).
After viewing film of the incident, Belgium authorities identified
groups of Liverpool fans as those who instigated vicious attacks against
the Italian fans, which in turn led to a stampede of people attempting to
escape the violence. The Liverpool soccer hooligans were the ones wearing
ski masks and carrying various weapons including, pick axe handles and clubs
(The Times, 30 May 1985). The brutality of the event was further
heightened by eyewitness accounts claiming the Liverpool soccer hooligans
were urinating on the corpses and jumping around in celebration (Canter,
1989). In time, the main offenders were brought to trial and sentenced in
a Belgium court.
Non-Europeans, hearing of the incident probably considered this a
tragic, but isolated event. Sadly, British, as well as other European citizens,
are most aware of the problem that has become known as the “British Disease”
(Canter, 1989, p. 109), or soccer hooliganism.
1985 was a bad year for professional soccer in Britain, because not
only did the incident in Brussels occur, but “fire broke out at Bradford
City Football Club causing many deaths,” apparently caused by an ignited
Molotov cocktail, “and a wall collapsed at Birmingham City, which also led
to numerous deaths” (Canter, 1989, pp. xvi). Furthermore, from 1985 to 1990
all British soccer club teams were banned from European competitions as a
result of the Heysel Stadium tragedy.
Superficially, it seems inconceivable that soccer fans would die
intentionally at the hands of others, yet with deeper understanding of the
soccer scene it becomes clear why these incidents occurred. It was just a
matter of time before the activities of soccer hooligans would lead to tragedy
on the scale of the Heysel Stadium incident. Fortunately, 13 years later,
there have been no further multiple-death incidents, though single deaths
caused by soccer hooligans still occur and English soccer hooliganism is
still “in business.”
Sadly, British soccer hooliganism, as a wholly British import and
a “peculiarly English pastime” (Kerr, 1994) has spread to other countries
in Europe. According to Murray (1984),
Where soccer hooliganism does occur in countries like Holland
and Italy, it seems merely to imitate what has gone on in England over the
last 30 years, and it is a good deal less frequent and much less widespread.
Even in other countries of British Isles, fighting, when it does occur at
soccer games, is somehow different from the English variety. For example,
in Scotland and Northern Ireland when violence takes place it tends to be
based on the sectarian divisions in those countries (p. 68).
Americans may have heard of the incidents previously mentioned, but
to most the concept of organized violence and other criminal activity carried
out by so called “fans” of a professional sports team is hard to grasp. However,
in England and other parts of the world, there is a real threat of becoming
a victim of soccer hooliganism when attending a game.
Unlike the hooliganism of the 1960s and 1970s, soccer hooliganism
today rarely involves random acts of violence or the actions of an unorganized
rabble. The ‘Chelsea Headhunters’ for example, are a notorious soccer
hooligan gang in London that has a specific hierarchal leadership structure.
A recent leader of this group was Terry Last, an un-imposing law clerk for
a firm of solicitors (Keel, 1987). The following passage from “Operation
Own Goal” (Darbyshire, 1991) illustrates the fact that soccer hooliganism
is anything but random and spontaneous:
An important feature of the ‘Headhunters’ hooliganism
was the degree of detailed planning invested in setting up opportunities
for ‘aggro’ (violence) with rival hooligans. The violence they generated
was anything but spontaneous. Between them they could mobilize about 400
hooligans, marshaling them like military commanders to engagements planned
weeks, sometimes months in advance. For away games, for example, rather than
allowing themselves to be apprehended by local police security operations,
they would travel out of their way, arriving unexpectedly from a completely
different direction at a station in a particular city where trains from London
did not stop. This extravagant method of travel was financed from thousands
of pounds retained in a number of bank accounts (p. 92).
The efforts of the British police and other management agencies,
responsible for controlling and eliminating soccer hooliganism, have only
been moderately successful (Canter, 1989). Pitch (field of play) invasions
and crowd violence increased in the 1900s, and there has been scant success
in preventing the activities of the hard core soccer hooligan groups as the
hooliganism problem associated with English soccer continues to thrive.
Soccer hooliganism is now an integral part of the social fabric of
England and, more recently, other parts of Europe. The reputation of English
people in general has suffered as a result of the antics of the soccer hooligan
element with the foreign press, on occasion, describing England as a nation
of soccer hooligans (Taylor, 1992).
The majority of English soccer spectators are true, law-abiding fans
of the game, and at no time should their traditional chanting, singing, and
high spirits at soccer watches be confused with soccer hooliganism. Indeed,
some soccer hooligans are also true fans of the game, and being a hooligan
does not erase an individual’s allegiance to a particular soccer team. However,
to most hooligans the style of play or success of the team are normally
unimportant. As Kerr (1994) describes, “a particular team is merely a kind
of ‘flag of convenience’ that allows the hooligans to pursue their
activities against the followers of other teams, the police or members of
the public” (p. 4). Soccer hooligans are a small percentage of any soccer
game crowd, and some writers would even contend that ‘soccer hooligan
violence is not as widespread, regular, and frequent an aspect of crowd behavior
at soccer games…as the press would have us believe” (Canter, 1989, p.
Soccer hooligan is a recently-coined term used to describe the antisocial
activities of followers of professional soccer teams. The word hooligan
originated in 19th century London from an Irish immigrant family named Hooligan
(Williams and Wagg, 1991), that terrorized the tenement areas of the ‘East
End’. The term hooligan was later used as a general descriptor for any criminal
or rowdy behavior.
The words soccer and hooligan were combined roughly 30 years ago
because of the many hooligan acts associated with professional soccer. Hooligan
attacks are usually made against rival hooligan gangs, but these same groups
may unite as one to “form a kind of super hooligan coalition for trips abroad
to ‘support’ the England team” (Hornby, 1992, p. 168). Once these hooligans
return to England the coalition disbands to be replaced by the old
What can be confusing when describing soccer hooliganism is that
the incidents can, and often do, occur some distance from any soccer stadium.
The hooliganism label is given to incidents involving soccer team supporters
regardless of the location. The types of behavior and actions categorized
as soccer hooliganism vary considerably. Soccer hooliganism may involve riots,
pitch invasions, the assaulting of players, fighting, vandalism, drunk and
disorderly offenses, verbal and physical assaults, the use of weapons, the
throwing of missiles, murder and mugging.
Trivizas (1980) found that 67 percent of arrests were for “the use
of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior, with intent to cause
a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace may be occasioned”
(p. 185). This is partly due to the difficulties of arresting hooligans from
within a large group, and the fact that the police are more likely to charge
offenders with offenses that they know they have enough evidence to convict
The activities or soccer hooligans can take place before, during
or after a match. The efforts of police to prevent hooliganism in the stadiums
has changed the face of soccer hooliganism. Canter (1989) states:
While one form of hooliganism is thus discouraged, another
comes forward to take its place. Fans who are physically separated within
the ground can throw missiles, coins or even seats at each other and
‘fighting crews’ from some clubs make special foray to find rival fans
in places or at times not subject to match-day policing (p. 108).
Soccer hooliganism is a relatively recent social problem, but soccer
spectator violence is as old as the professional game itself. In fact, violence
in sports is not peculiar to soccer. Sport spectator violence has been documented
since the Roman era (Canter, 1989). Spectator violence associated with the
Roman chariot races was “unparalleled by even the worst violence today and
continued into the fifth and sixth centuries in the Byzantine empire” (Canter,
1989, p. 104).
Soccer evolved from medieval village melees, in which opposing groups
tried to move a leather-covered bladder to a place defended by their opponents.
The melees became so violent that in 1365 Edward III, fearing civil unrest
(Canter, 1989), banned this version of soccer. Violence at soccer games has
continued to be a problem throughout the history of the game, and in 1655
football matches were banned, in order to preserve order in the Midlands,
by Oliver Cromwell.
The modern, professional version of soccer was created during the
1840s. In the early days of professional soccer violent rivalries were common,
and pitch invasions and spectator violence were regular during the 1880s
(Walvin, 1986). In fact, most of the pre-World War I period of professional
soccer was associated with fairly routine crowd disturbances which, as noted
by Williams and Wagg(1991), would be considered small-scale by modern day
The period after World War I and through World War II saw a decline
in instances of crowd violence and misbehavior. In fact, during the period
1914-1940 Holt (1989) states that
Nowhere in the vast press coverage and literature of match
reports is there any reference to the growth of a violent, organized youth
subculture within football. Casual, individual violence was almost certainly
more common than today, but hooliganism in the collective and contemporary
sense did not take place at football matches (Holt, 1989, p. 333).
Crowd disturbances at soccer matches afflicted the early years of
the game, with incidents usually involving alcohol consumption and isolated
fist fights and swearing (Kerr, 1994). When there were riots or pitch invasions,
the targets were normally the referees or the players, in reaction to bad
calls or player misconduct, all contrasting with the organized pitch invasions
which became a common occurrence in the 1970s. However, soccer hooliganism
during the 1960s and 1970s was not peculiar to Britain. Williams et al. (1984)
noted that at a match in Peru in 1964 318 people were killed in a riot, 74
people died in Argentina in 1968, 69 in Russia in 1982 and 29 in Columbia
in the same year. However, what sets these incidents apart from the British
version of soccer hooliganism, is the fact that they were spontaneous reactions
to bad referee calls and emotional reactions to losing crucial games, not
The post-war years were boom years for the English game and this
was reflected in record ticket sales and attendances at the professional
soccer games. However, according to Murphy et al. (1990) “the after glow
of victory in the Second World War (started) to fade, the loss of Empire,
and slow economic growth” and at the same time there was “rising public concern
about the problem of working class youth, rock and roll, and especially the
‘Teddy Boys'” (p. 80).
Teddy Boys was the name given to a youth sub-cult of the late 1950s
characterized by a particular style of dress and hair style, dancing, rock
and roll, and a reputation for violence and bad behavior. The Teddy Boys
were also blamed for the rise in crowd disturbances at soccer games. Teddy
Boys were involved in a number of pitch invasions and mass brawls with opposing
fans at soccer matches (Murphy et al. 1990). However, in this early stage,
soccer hooliganism had not yet become a household term in Britain.
The next important stage for soccer hooliganism occurred with the
emergence of the skinhead craze during the late 1960s. Skinhead gangs cropped
up all over working class council estates, in public housing, and throughout
the towns and cities of Britain. Just as with gangs in the United States,
the skinhead gangs displayed loyalty and pride in their community. Heavy
drinking and fighting with rival gangs was a way of life for these young
men from the “rough working class” (Dunning et al., 1986, p. 38).
These same skinhead gangs went to soccer matches to support their
local teams. Although there was strong loyalty to a particular community,
on match days there occurred what Paul Harrison has described as ‘the
Bedouin effect’, “people from different housing estates who are ‘deadly
enemies’ all week can be allies on Saturdays in the face of outsiders from
another town” (Taylor, 1978, p. 155).
Areas behind the soccer goals are known as ‘ends’, and these
are traditional areas of soccer hooligan activity. The skinheads of the late
1960s and early 1970s took the territoriality of the housing estates into
the soccer stadiums. Rival soccer fans taunted at each other with gestures
and chants and derogatory songs designed to spark a fight between the two
(Canter, 1989). Soccer matches were the perfect venues to display “aggressive
masculine styles” such as heavy drinking, ability to fight, and
Pitch invasions, which were designed to either halt play or instigate
fights with rival hooligans from the opposing end, became common place. Special
football trains, which had been in use for years to transport soccer fans
to away games for a reasonable price, became venues for hooligan activity
in the form of vandalism and fighting. The mid-’70s saw the emergence of
the fighting crews’ who have become known as the early predecessors to the
superhooligans of the 1980s and 1990s. These gangs were attached to most
of the upper division professional soccer teams in Britain. The most notorious
and infamous of these fighting crews supported the London team Millwall Football
Club. In the winter of 1975 the English current affairs program Panorama
aired an in-depth profile of the Millwall fighting crew known as ‘F-troop’
The Millwall soccer hooligans had a reputation for being ‘hard’
as well as ‘crazy’. When at their home stadium, they occupied the area
behind the goal. Their most distinguishing trademark was the donning of surgical
shirts and hats. the Millwall hooligans were organized on the terraces by
fighting abilities and age. The youngest members of the group, known as the
‘Underfives’, would be situated alongside the rival hooligans. It was
their job to antagonize and entice the others to attack them or fight. Once
the fighting started the next group known as the ‘treatment’ would go
in. If the situation was not controlled adequately by the treatment then
the group known as ‘surgery’ would get involved. The surgery were the
real ‘nutters’ who were mostly in their 30s and 40s with previous criminal
records for violence. It was their job to “really put the boot in” (Canter
1989, p. 77).
The Millwall F-troop slowly disbanded during the late ‘70s as
key members were jailed and security measures at stadiums prevented the terrace
violence. However, the organization and planning that went into the activities
of members of F-troop was similar to that found in the super-hooligan groups.
There were also fighting crews associated with other teams such as, Liverpool,
Manchester’s Red Army, Chelsea, West Ham, Leeds, Birmingham. Almost all of
the professional soccer teams had their version of F-troop in the
Except for Millwall, the fighting crews of the other soccer teams
were a loose collection of individuals. Fighting that broke out was usually
started by the more fearless or well-known hooligans backed up by those who
happened to be in the vicinity. Only when examined in detail do the similarities
of these earlier fighting crews to the later super-hooligans begin to fade.
Unfortunately, 30 years later the hooliganism problem is alive and well and
bodily harm has escalated, in some cases, to murder.
As fashions changed the skinhead gangs slowly disappeared from the
terraces during the early 1970s, but the hooligans remained. The number of
pitch invasion incidents during this period increased (Murphy et al. 1990)
as soccer hooligans tried taking rival hooligans territory by force. With
the cooperation of police, the Football Association (the main governing body
of professional soccer in Britain), and the soccer club owners, fencing and
barriers were widely installed in an attempt to stop the pitch invasions
(William and Wagg, 1991). These preventive measures also served another important
purpose, that of segregating the rival soccer hooligans from each
However, the elaborate barricades and fences around the soccer pitch
designed to control soccer hooligans later resulted in tragedy. What these
fences did was cage up the possible soccer hooligans in one controlled section
of the stadium. These engagements became death traps on 15 April 1989, when
a rush of fans through the turnstiles at Hillborough Stadium in Sheffield
led to the deaths of 95 Liverpool supporters. Most of the deaths were caused
by crushing and suffocation as people were pushed and squeezed against the
fencing, unable to escape (Taylor, 1988). This, and other incidents, resulted
in the removal of all the fences and barriers at soccer stadiums across the
country. Risk of a similar incident happening again overshadowed the threat
of soccer hooliganism.
Management efforts were implemented throughout Britain to prevent
hooliganism activity both inside and outside the stadiums as rival groups
of fans were routinely escorted by police both to and from train stations
and stadiums. Outbreaks of mass fights and violent clashes between rival
soccer hooligan groups, common during the late 1960s and early 1970s, started
to subside. However, during the early to mid-1970s, another facet of soccer
hooliganism began to emerge as soccer hooligans began to throw objects as
weapons. Sharpened coins and darts were the favored weapons as they were
easily concealed and could be thrown long distances with reasonable
The ends of soccer stadiums fostered the development of a sense of
‘kinship’ amongst the hooligans. They were also the place where reputations
could be made within the hooligan element. Those individuals who were either
‘hard’ enough, crazy enough, or both, could attain ‘folklore’ status
as a “true nutter” of the soccer terraces.
Walvin (1986) gives an account of a ‘particularly nasty’ hooligan
called “Tiny,” a follower of the Chelsea Soccer Club of London. “Tiny” had
a reputation for instigating fights and was known as someone who could
‘hold his own’ in a fight. He would make lone charges against, for example,
50 opposing fans, more often then not causing them to break ranks and run.
He was finally given a life sentence for using a sawn-off shotgun and causing
serious injury to a rival group of hooligans (Walvin, 1986).
British authorities began to take soccer hooliganism seriously by
the mid-’70s, and calls for stiffer penalties were answered. Prison sentences,
fines, and other punishment for soccer-related offenses became more severe
than equivalent non-soccer related offenses, (Marsh, 1978). There was a slight
drop in the number of related soccer hooligan offenses, but the results of
the new laws were disappointing. Something more had to be done.
Heavy police presence, barricades and fencing, stiffer penalties,
and segregation of rival fans, were all measures that were received with
initial enthusiasm, but fell short when hooliganism continued despite these
measures. Authorities were at a loss as to how to deal with this serious
In the meantime, soccer hooligans continued “plying their trade”
in terraces across Britain. By the late 1970s the nature of soccer hooliganism
began to change when it became more difficult to engage in hooligan activity,
either at the game or adjacent to it. Management’s installing of closed circuit
television in the late 1970s and early 1980s made for easier identification
of hooligans, and forced the hooligans to take more care when conducting
their activities. Hooligans began to do most of their fighting and other
hooligan activity in the pubs and side streets of British city centers. They
would even show up at airports, truck stops, night clubs, and similar public
venues with the sole purpose of clashing with rival hooligans.
British soccer hooligan antics were not confined to the British Isles.
The rise in hooligan incidents during the early to mid-’70s led to further
troubling developments as incidents began to surface on continental Europe.
Up until 1974 the rest of Europe had been relatively hooligan-free; it was
something that happened in Britain. This all changed on 12 February 1974,
when Leeds United, an English soccer team from the north of England, played
for the European championship against the Lyons Football Club, based in France;
the match was played in Paris (Barnes, 1974). During this match a contingent
of Leeds soccer hooligans attacked French fans and ripped up seating and
other stadium fixtures, and used these items as missiles against the French
police. It was 50 minutes before the hooligans were dispersed or arrested.
This single incident brought English soccer hooliganism to Europe.
Incidents involving either local teams or the English national team
increased throughout the 1970s and continue to this day. Kerr (1994) believes
that the rise in English soccer hooliganism abroad was partly a result of
reactions to management measures taken at stadiums in England which made
it more difficult and risky to engage in hooligan activity. In a sense, Europe
was “easy pickings” for the hard core English hooligans who “reigned supreme
against fans who did not fight back and police who were unaccustomed and
ill-prepared to deal with them” (Kerr 1994, p.12).
People abroad had an image, encouraged by local media, “of the English
as a loutish, beer-drinking mob of football hooligans,” and “it was as if
the British had become a nation of hooligans football louts” (Walvin, 1994,
p. 193). English soccer hooligans were more than willing to perpetuate this
image. Relatedly, there was also a rise in British nationalism as these hooligan
incidents were on the increase. English hooligans derived a sense of national
pride from the fact that they believed they were the “hardest blokes in Europe”
(Williams et al. 1984, p. 35).
However, just as in Britain, the security forces in European countries
began to fight back against these hooligans. The police in Germany, France,
Italy, and Spain, used more heavy-handed tactics than those employed in Britain.
Tear gas, rubber bullets, riot sticks and water cannons were routinely used
by European police to quell troubles caused by English soccer
Only much later, because of their long-standing tradition as protectors
and defenders, did the British police use similar tactics. However, the
aggressive tactics of the police abroad did not deter the hooligans who thrived
on the excitement of clashes with riot police (Buford, 1991). On the continent
most hooligan activities conducted by the English occurred outside of the
stadiums. Williams, et. al. (1994), describe English soccer hooligans in
Spain destroying cafes and bars, beating up locals, clashing with Spanish
youths, rioting in towns, looting, and committing other criminal acts, with
alcohol consumption being blamed for the majority of these incidents. In
retrospect, from 1974 to the present, there has not been a game played, on
or off the continent, between an English team and a European side that wasn’t
marred by some form of hooligan activity, either in the stadium or outside
As Carter (1989) notes:
Every preventative measure can be combated by the hooligans.
Missile-throwing takes the place of face-to-face confrontation, segregation
within the ground displaces the aggression to outside the ground, a police
presence forces anyone looking for trouble to plan ahead. Therefore the symptoms
change but the illness remains the same (p. 123).
And although over time, management measures have reduced in-stadium
incidences of this illness, negative side-effects of the measures led to,
by 1986, the presence of a super-strain of the original hooligan figure of
the early 1960s – a much more covert, rooted, organized, and powerful menace
to management than its predecessor.
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