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Roland Benedikter

February 14th, 2024

Why is football violence on the rise again in Europe?

0 comments | 18 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Roland Benedikter

February 14th, 2024

Why is football violence on the rise again in Europe?

0 comments | 18 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

After a period of relative calm, football violence appears to be making a comeback in Europe, writes Roland Benedikter. Drawing on a new book, he identifies a series of factors that explain this reemergence.


Almost every week we hear reports about football violence. After a period of relative quiet, most of Europe seems to be affected again. This new hooliganism has taken a foothold in political protests and turned sports into a battleground. It also damages the public image of its multi-billion-euro industry, as well as its principles of sportsmanship and fairness.

The reasons are multiple. They include not only the behaviour of individuals or single events, but – to at least a similar extent – the structure of the economic, social and political ecosystem in which they take place. The founding and driving motives are interconnected in often opaque ways with the spirit of the times and with periods and cycles of social development that reinforce each other.

The spirit of the times

If we search for the deeper origins of the phenomenon, there are several important aspects that underly football violence. The first is the “spirit of the times”. According to contemporary political pundits, we are living in an age of uncertainty. This is characterised by profound disruptions in almost every field of society.

Systemic crises are taking place simultaneously in politics, culture, religion, demography, technology and the economy. This simultaneous “deep” change in so many fields at the same time creates a net of interconnected fundamental transitions that can be difficult to grasp.

As a consequence, many people now feel insufficient, uncomfortable, insecure and therefore more aggressive. There is a sense of a “loss of control”, particularly among those who are less wealthy or educated, those who work hard just to make ends meet and the socially and economically exploited.

However, this phenomenon is also increasingly affecting those in the middle classes. In the United States, a survey in April 2023 found that 72 percent of voters believed US society was “out of control” and thus that counter-measures had to be taken. Despite its claims to be apolitical, this context also impacts on football. Rising football violence can be seen as a symptom of these wider trends.

Social inequality and the return of tribalism

Around the world, rising living costs and the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have had a particularly damaging impact on the middle and lower classes, who are traditionally more likely to attend football matches. Inequality creates deepening class gaps and puts financial pressure on supporters. This can increase their susceptibility to populism, which is visible in protests against rising ticket prices, super-rich club owners and “elites” more generally.

The effect is that even in societies such as Germany, where due to the structure of football financing through memberships, not sponsors, inequality was never the problem, tensions are rising. Although Germany’s innovative prevention approach to hooliganism seems to be effective, there are mounting concerns about this summer’s Euro 2024 tournament. France and the UK are experiencing similar issues. Meanwhile, Greece recently had to force games to be played without supporters from the end of 2023 until February 2024.

In many societies, both open and closed, group-thinking is resurging. Football tribalism in stadiums stands in contrast to the isolation of online communication. Tribalism defines itself through conflict between one “tribe” and another. This can easily give way to hooliganism and is one reason why riots involving opposing football supporters, as seen recently in Cyprus, are becoming more common.

Yet both this and social media can be seen as extreme forms of community building. Social media is characterised by “bubbles” of people with common prejudices and biases, often defined through the exclusion of others. This can be viewed as the non-physical expression of tribalism.

According to the “law of interconnectivity overdrive”, the more people are interconnected in abstract ways, the more they are likely to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the modern world. This can result in disconnection with those who process and interpret things differently, leading to self-isolation and anger. These sentiments are mirrored in the rise of populism across world politics, which has made tribalism appear more socially acceptable.

Commercialisation and sportsmanship

Over the last few decades, football has become increasingly commercialised. At times it appears football matches are now little more than side-events for a commercial business. The spirit of the game has fundamentally changed, with the sport now characterised by the raw competitiveness of commercial competition.

The result has been a loss of sportsmanship, with winning prioritised at all costs. And if football ceases to be a game and is simply a vehicle for defeating an opponent, supporters may be more willing to turn to violence. This is particularly problematic in southern and eastern Europe, where there are still unfinished conflicts. Here, the loss of sportsmanship might mean football is no longer a way of promoting unity but is instead a source of division.

This pattern is also visible in a lack of cohesion within European societies. However, it is interesting that migration, which is often held up as a threat to cohesion in wider society, has the opposite framing in football. Foreign players are vital to the success of elite football teams in Europe. Cohesion within the sport is thus built around heterogenous groups of players playing for a single team, such as Bayern Munich in Germany.

In this way, football might act as an antidote to the anti-migration rhetoric of parties like the Alternative for Germany, who recently made headlines over an alleged plan to implement a “forced remigration programme”. Football supporters with anti-migration views can be put in a difficult position by such developments as they must by necessity enlarge their concept of identity when dealing with the ethnic composition of their teams.

Education

Those who engage in football violence often suffer from educational inequalities. However traditional education has also fallen behind the wave of change that is occurring across society. Football has a territorial quality, with teams being viewed as “conquerors” and supporters in the cheap seats looking out across a huge bowl of spectators. Seeing this bigger picture forms part of the appeal of football.

It is precisely this big picture that is lacking in European education systems. Education systems must promote what UNESCO refers to as “futures literacy”, namely the ability to understand the role of the future in the world we see around us. Doing so would help address the concerns many people feel about the changes we are experiencing and ensure they do not turn to alternative ways of making sense of the world, such as through football violence.

A problem of our time

When these factors are considered, it is apparent that football violence is a problem of our time. This does not excuse the actions of those who take part in it. Football violence usually reflects a lack of individual responsibility, with individuals caught up in a rush of group excitement and engaging in conduct that is simply criminal. As a problem, football violence is difficult to erase because it reflects all the factors outlined above.

Football violence also follows socio-economic cycles. It prospers during times of economic hardship and it decreases when economies improve. Even during the quiet times, however, it is always in the shadows of great sporting occasions. It reflects the desire of humans to seek safety in numbers and a sense of belonging, affiliation and power through the company we keep. Preventing it requires a multi and trans-disciplinary approach built on education, countering social and value bubbles, and encouraging a better understanding of both our contemporary situation and our future.

Roland Benedikter is co-editor (with Daniel Fitzpatrick and Darius Wojtaszyn) of The Political Economy of European Football: Perspectives from Central and Eastern Europe (Routledge, 2024)


Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: czjonyyy / Shutterstock.com


About the author

Roland Benedikter

Roland Benedikter is Co-Head of the Centre for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research Bozen/Bolzano, UNESCO Chair in Interdisciplinary Anticipation and Global-Local Transformation, Ordinary member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and Global Advisor of the Institute for Culture and Society of Western Sydney University. He advises governments, was member of the “Future Circle” for the German Federal Government 2019-23 and is co-editor and co-author of Football Politics in Central and Eastern Europe.

Posted In: Latest Research | Politics

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