The hooliganism hype

As hooligans have vacated the terraces (usually to pen their memoirs) there are more anti-hooligan laws than ever before. Why?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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If football hooligans didn’t exist, somebody would have to invent them. That seems to be the motto of the UK National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS).

On 15 August 2001 the NCIS announced that there had been an 8.1 percent increase in arrests for football offences (1). Obligingly, the UK Guardian ran a full-page expose on the ‘Hooligan disease that clings to football’, which was little more than a rehash of the NCIS press release (2).

A closer look at the statistics reveals a very different picture. Arrests for football-related offences at league games in England and Wales did increase from 3138 in 1999/2000 to 3391 in 2000/2001. However, the number of arrests constituted a mere 0.01 percent of the 26million spectators who attended league matches in 2000/2001 (3).

The truth is that arrests are significantly lower than they were in the late 1980s, while the number of people attending games has steadily increased. In the five seasons from 1987/1988 to 1991/1992 there were an average of 5480 arrests a year, compared to an annual average of 3350 in the past five seasons (4). Not only are arrests down but mass outbreaks of terrace violence have virtually disappeared. So not really a disease – more a case of mild indigestion.

Ironically, as the hooligans have vacated the terraces – usually to pen their memoirs – there are more anti-hooligan laws than ever before. The effect of recent football legislation has been to redefine hooliganism much more broadly. For example, an offence only used to be classed as ‘football-related’ if it occurred immediately before or after a game – but the Football (Offences and Disorder) Act 1999 extended this period to 24 hours either side of a match, or even longer for overseas games.

The ever-widening definition of hooliganism means that many relatively harmless misdemeanours – such as drunkenness, running on to the pitch, ticket touting, obscene gestures, and offensive chanting – are counted in the NCIS arrest figures. One in 10 football arrests is for running on to the pitch, which means that people like Nicholas Gale, the Crystal Palace fan who was given a three-year ban just for dancing on to the pitch to celebrate a goal in an FA Cup tie against Sunderland, are branded as football hooligans (5).

A third of all the football arrests last season were for ‘drink-related offences’ – the single most common football offence. Since it is illegal to be drunk or in possession of alcohol on a football coach or train, to enter a stadium drunk, or to drink alcohol within view of the pitch, it’s a wonder that more people aren’t arrested. Frankly, if fans weren’t drunk, what little remains of the atmosphere in football grounds would be extinguished.

The NCIS argues that the arrest figures don’t tell the whole story. Bryan Drew, NCIS head of specialist intelligence, warns that ‘new strains of football hooliganism are developing that are clever, resilient and increasingly resistant’. This new-variant hooliganism is invisible to the untrained eye but, according to NCIS, rival firms are using the internet and mobile phones to organise punch-ups well away from football stadia. This may be true, but can this clandestine violence still be described as football hooliganism? Indeed, if consenting hooligans choose to fight in secret outside football grounds, does anybody really care?

I certainly don’t. But I do care about the relentless hooliganisation of fan behaviour that is killing the passion inside football grounds.

Read on:

spiked-proposals: Football, by Duleep Allirajah

spiked-issues: Sport

(1) NCIS press release, 15 August 2001

(2) Guardian, 16 August 2001

(3) English attendance 1989 – 2001

(4) ‘Fact Sheet 1: Football and Football Hooliganism’, Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research and House of Commons Hansard, Written Answers, 6 March 2001, Col 122

(5) See Offside, 20 April 2001

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Topics Politics


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