‘Hooliganism’ at Euro 2016: the social psychology of the ‘English Disease’

Professor Clifford Stott considers what has actually happened out in France, and lessons to be learned.

As the England team played out a rather dull draw in St Etienne they were surrounded by tens of thousands of England fans, a number well beyond the rather paltry 6,720 officially allocated tickets. This ‘get there by hook or by crook’ attitude reflects one of the core dimensions of England fan identity – loyalty. But for many people, England fan identity is synonymous with another characteristic – ‘hooliganism’.

Certainly, as England fans gathered in the centre of St Etienne on the eve of their last group fixture against Slovakia it was all ‘kicking off’. At one point, beer showered down from above as England fans threw their plastic glasses into the air. But below them wasn’t crowd conflict, just vibrant dancing as a PA pumped out Gala's 1997 hit 'Freed from Desire' while all about jumped up and down chanting 'Vardy’s on fire'. How stark the contrast to only a few days previously where England fans had firstly ‘rioted’ in Marseilles and then moved onto Lille, where they again had been involved in serious confrontations. In both locations tear gas had been the ‘plats du jour’.

But of course it’s not just been the behaviour of England fans in the news. The match between Croatia and Turkey had to be suspended for a short while – flares had been thrown onto the pitch, and a banger had exploded in the face of a fire steward.

With such high levels of ‘disorder’ surrounding the tournament in France, people are beginning to wonder if we are seeing a return to the ‘dark days’ of the 1980’s where football was plagued with the ‘English Disease’. It is certainly the case that many have described these events as ‘hooliganism’ and attributed cause to so called ‘hooligans’. For example, during a debate in the UK Parliament following the ‘disorder’ in Marseilles, the Conservative MP Phillip Hollobone said that “English football hooligans who take part in such violence bring shame on our country.” But can these rather simplistic categorisations and moral condemnations actually make sense of what is going on? Is it the case that ‘hooligans’ are once again converging on football crowds to exercise their violent predispositions? If such dispositional explanations are valid, how do they account for such profound differences in behaviour across England’s venues so far?    

With rioting extending across three days in the run up to England’s opening match against Russia, Marseilles will itself be enough for Euro2016 to be remembered for ‘rioting’ off the pitch as well as events on it. Almost immediately after the fighting first broke out in the city on eve of the tournament, mainstream media analysis began attributing blame to the presence of English ‘hooligans’. But by Sunday morning, the day after England’s opening fixture, the media had begun to acknowledge a more complex picture. It was becoming increasingly clear that far from being protagonists, England fans were actually victims. Kevin Miles, the Chief Executive Officer of the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), went as far as asserting, at first in radio interviews and then later in a formal statement, that England fans had not initiated a single incident of conflict. He abjectly denied that there were any organised English hooligan groups present in Marseilles. He also refused to condemn any England fans for their involvement in ‘violence’, which he asserted could and should be understood as a legitimate form of ‘self-defence’.

It was an extremely important injection of realism into a debate that, as usual, had become distorted. Accuracy had been sacrificed in favour of the moral condemnation of football fans, once again, as with Hillsborough, blaming football fans for somehow causing their own misfortune. The FSF’s position was not only powerful but also quite courageous given the dominance of the alternative views at that time. Nonetheless the available evidence does suggest the FSF position ultimately reflected the underlying reality of the way events developed in Marseilles. And what is also apparent is how closely they mirrored what happened when England last played in Marseille in 1998, when widespread rioting also took place – rioting created then, as in 2016, not by English hooliganism but by a complex array of interrelating factors linked to crowd psychology and behaviour but also therefore to policing. 

It is clear that England fans arriving in Marseille began congregating in the Old Port area of the city on Thursday evening. Some were singing and drinking, acting boisterously, even invoking boorish chants about German Bombers and Krauts. Others were simply relaxing in the many bars and restaurants. Then, at some point French ‘Ultras’ began perpetrating violent unprovoked attacks on England fans, to which the police responded not by arresting but dispersing protagonists with tear gas grenades. It seems the police then started to use more tear gas and other forms of coercion to disperse any large gathering of fans, presumably in some flawed attempt to ‘prevent’ further disorder.

It is evident that this intergroup interaction then starts to feed into a sense of illegitimacy, vulnerability, antagonism and empowerment among England fans, which gets amplified the next day. In this sense the policing response in Marseilles was, from the very outset, reliant on the kind of ‘old school’ tactics that our previous research, both in Marseille in 1998 and elsewhere, demonstrates plays a major role in escalating crowd conflict. Ultimately, the policing fed into a form of identity among England fans whereby conflict against police and locals was understood as increasingly legitimate and at times even necessary in order for England fans to defend themselves and others around them, or to otherwise retaliate against these ‘unprovoked’ attacks.

These social psychological processes of escalation appear to have then fed into the day of the match itself, where they are further complicated by the arrival of much larger number of English fans and a group of organised Russian ‘Ultras’. On the basis of eyewitness accounts, it appears that the first fighting on the day of the match actually breaks out between French ‘Ultras’, affiliated to ‘Olympique de Marseille’ and ‘Paris Saint-Germain’, who cascade down into a large crowd of English fans gathered in the Old Port. Amidst the confusion, and from the other side, the Russian ‘Ultras’ then moved against the English purposefully attacking pretty much anyone and everyone they could. The levels of violence they exercised were extreme and there are accounts of some of them being armed with knives. Some England fans were seriously injured, and a few critically, two left in comas and some described as receiving “life changing injuries”. The police then reacted driving into the crowd of England fans with their tear gas and other escalatory tactics. What subsequently takes place is the ‘riot’ that filled media headlines, editorials and Parliamentary debates across the following days.   

While debate has very much focused on the role of ‘hooligans’ what is immediately clear is, as with events in 1998, any adequate analysis of the rioting cannot ignore the role of group interaction and policing in bringing about the scale and intensity of the crowd violence. What is more, the policing approach in Marseilles stands in stark contrast to international guidance and standards of good practice for these major UEFA tournaments, standards which are themselves underpinned by social psychological research. What is equally clear is that the French ‘security’ approach failed to prevent this group of Russians perpetuating attacks throughout the afternoon and then again later inside the stadium. Indeed, throughout the day French police arrested just two Russian nationals and that was for running onto the pitch.

England played next against Wales in Lens, a small mining town in north west France. Given longstanding concerns about both terrorist attacks and ‘hooliganism’ the authorities were already operating on the highest levels of alert for this fixture. But with limited accommodation in Lens, authorities had previously advised all fans to stay in Lille, the nearby and much larger provincial capital. The problem was that, on the evening before England’s match, Russia were to play Slovakia in Lille itself, meaning there would now be considerable potential for further confrontations between English and Russian fans in the city. Of course, the fans flooding into Lille had by then either been directly involved with or had otherwise seen and heard about the attacks in Marseille. It should be no surprise then that there were many England fans who were ‘on their toes’ about being attacked or otherwise keen on ‘getting even’ with Russian ‘hooligans’ should they show up again.  

Against pre-tournament expectations Welsh and English fans arriving in the city actually began to ‘fraternise’ and chant about their unity against Russian fans, who were clearly not welcome to join this particular party. Early in the afternoon it appears a group of Russians attacked a bar, provoking British fans inside to retaliate. Sometime later a larger crowd of mostly England fans, who had gathered outside a pub in the vicinity of a central Square, strode out apparently assuming Russian ‘hooligans’ were nearby. The Financial Times quoted one England fan involved defiantly claiming that the “Russians started charging us so we all just said ‘come on, let’s get them. We weren’t here for violence but if it comes to us, we were never going to back down’.” After a short-time police moved in and began firing tear gas at the England fans who then dispersed, presumably back to the bar. However, despite the relative absence of actual violence it was the firing of tear gas that constituted further ‘trouble’ in the media.

As the evening progressed further confrontations soon developed. These conflicts appear to have been between England fans and the police but to have resulted from the fact that the authorities required bars to close early forcing England fans out onto the streets, where police then attempted to corral and disperse them using force. Ultimately during the evening 35 England fans were injured and hospitalised and media coverage ensured the English fans’ ‘troublemaking’ disposition was further confirmed. However, whilst this analysis can only be superficial at this stage, it does appear that the general pattern of crowd conflict that developed in Lille emerged as a consequence of a particular form of identity emerging directly from the historical intergroup context of what happened in Marseilles. This psychology was shaped in turn by a more immediate context of intergroup relations in Lille, including policing similar to that in Marseilles and attempts to control ‘disorder’ by restricting access to alcohol. This social psychological identity based account certainly helps us to understand why it was then that Russian fans and then police were the targets of England fan hostility. 

On match day tens of thousands of England and Wales fans flocked into Lens. Here there were few problems, bar one of two minor issues and certainly none of the major and widespread hostilities between England and Welsh fans that had been expected. Indeed, the UK Police delegation speaking about fans’ behaviour in Lens were quoted as saying "they were very well-behaved. It was a superb advert for British sport". Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. With no locals or Russian fans mobilising to confront them England fans were now free to concentrate on what they actually come for, to celebrate and express their identity, not to fight. Indeed, after the victory over Wales on the pitch the England entourage then moved on to St Etienne. Here too the fixture once again passed off without confrontation. But what was particularly interesting about this city was the dramatic change in context. Here there were no violent groups seeking to attack England fans, their celebrations were facilitated in a central Square where alcohol was freely available, rather than ‘banned’, and a DJ pumped out familiar England anthems. Policing was also much more in line with the communication based ‘low profile’ policing called for in international guidance. On the one hand ‘riot’ police were largely ‘kept back’ so not to appear immediately intimidating. On the other, police officers patrolled in pairs proactively engaging in friendly interactions with England fans, some even requesting pictures be taken with them. 

This variability in crowd behaviour and intergroup relations across the first three of England’s fixtures itself raises explanatory challenges for a dispositional account and provides further support for our social identity based analysis. Quite simply the concept of the ‘hooligan’ cannot be a sufficient explanation of the observed variation in collective behaviour, since so called English 'hooligans' were not just present in Marseilles and Lille but also in Lens and St Etienne. This limitation in explanatory power for the dispositional or convergence account, so popular in contemporary debates, exposes how it still requires a further theoretical account of how and why 'disposition' translates into violent behaviour in one context and not in another. Moreover, the ‘hooligan’ analysis cannot account for why particular targets were chosen over and above others when violence does actually take place. In other words, the patterns of crowd action in France exposes, once again, how the concept of the 'hooligan' can only ever be merely descriptive and is primarily ideological; while used ubiquitously to ‘explain’ why violence happens actually it accounts for little if anything at all.

One thing is already clear, many England fans lives have been torn apart by what has happened in France, either thorough injury or criminal justice processes. Instead of focusing on the moral condemnation of English football fans we need to understand more clearly and objectively the lessons that actually need to be learnt. It is apparent that England fans became involved in violence in Marseilles and in Lille because of a very specific context that fed into a particular manifestation of their social identity. This identity and intergroup context functioned to both legitimise conflict and increasingly to empower those fans who felt it was justifiable, on many occasion even necessary, to confront those other groups. It is obvious therefore that moving forward, to prevent such violence the most appropriate response is not some sort of soul searching about a return to the dark days of English ‘hooliganism’. Equally, it is not about increasing police powers to identify and control so called English ‘hooligans’. Rather it is about creating a policing response that is capable of protecting England fans from these attacks and facilitating the celebratory norms so powerfully demonstrated in Lens and St Etienne. 

- Clifford Stott is Professor of Social Psychology at Keele University. Find more on his work in our archive and via his website.

Watch his ESRC impact prize video on policing crowds without force; work which was acknowledged by the ESRC as one of its 'top 50' achivements in its 50 year history. 
Professor Stott tells us: 'I have been monitoring social media and liaising directly with people (both fans and UK police) who are either out at Euro 2016 or know people who are. What’s really useful these days is social media, of course… you can access videos of events almost as soon as they happen. These, along with people’s posts and news articles, allow me to piece together bits of what’s happened from a social psychological perspective.' 

Further reading

  • Stott C; Hoggett J and Pearson G (2012) 'Keeping the Peace': Social Identity, Procedural Justice and the Policing of Football Crowds British Journal of Criminology. 52(2): 381-399
  • Stott, C.J., Adang, O.M., Livingstone, A., & Schreiber, M. (2008) Tackling Football Hooliganism: A Quantitative Study of Public Order, Policing and Crowd Psychology. Psychology Public Policy and Law. Vol. 14, No. 2, 115–14
  • Stott, C.J., Adang, O.M., Livingstone, A., & Schreiber, M. (2007) Variability in the collective behaviour of England fans at Euro2004: public order policing, social identity, intergroup dynamics and social change. European Journal of Social Psychology. 37, 75-100.
  • Reicher, S., Stott, C., Drury, J, Adang, O., Cronin, P., & Livingstone, A. (2007) Knowledge-Based Public Order Policing: Principles and Practice. Policing. 1, 403–415. 
  • Stott, C. & Pearson, G (2006) Football Banning Orders Proportionality and Public Order Policing.  The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice. 45, 3, 241-254.
  • Stott, C.J., Hutchison, P. & Drury, J. (2001) 'Hooligans' abroad? Inter-group dynamics, social identity and participation in collective 'disorder' at the 1998 World Cup Finals. British Journal of Social Psychology. 40, 359-384.

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