Football Fans Violence: What are they thinking?

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Football Fans Violence: What are they thinking?

There is a long history of hostility between fans of football teams, but why does loyalty equate to violence and conflict?

Simon Dobbin was an avid Cambridge United fan. He had the shirt, the scarf, and, in March 2015, tickets to the Cambridge v. Southend match at Roots Hall stadium. After the game, Mr Dobbin and friends headed to the Blue Boar in Southend, a designated pub for away supporters. They went in for post-match drinks before walking down to the nearby train station.

It was here that a group of Southend supporters ambushed them after shouting ‘get them’. Simon was forced to the ground and was kicked, struck and stamped on repeatedly. He had been left bloody and lay in the street with his friends, and was found by a member of the Essex Police.

Simon stopped breathing and paramedics performed CPR. He had been rushed to Southend Hospital before being moved to the specialist neurology unit at Addenbrooke Hospital.

In 2017, 12 men were sentenced for a total of 42 years over the incident. Nine were charged for violent disorder, and three for conspiracy to commit violent disorder.

Tragedy of Football Violence

Simon unable to talk or walk after the attack since he was left with a permanent brain injury. He was still unable to string sentences together five years later, when he passed away on October 21 2020.

Support poured in for Simon and his family as soon as news broke, with Cambridge United FC tweeting:

Credit: Cambridge United Football Club Twitter

Violent, football-related attacks like this are not uncommon. According to the Home Office, during the 2019/20 football season, 1,089 football-related arrests were made. With over half of these happening inside the stadium. The most common types of offences included public disorder with 372 arrests, violent disorder and alcohol or drug related offences.

But what is the psychology behind football hooliganism? Why are people willing to harm others, and themselves, in the name of football?

The Science Behind Hooliganism

Psychological research suggests hooliganism may “allow an opportunity for individuals to express their masculinity and offer a sense of ‘belonging, solidarity, and friendship’”. Or that they may “feel a ‘buzz’ when antagonising opposing fans”, a rush of adrenaline which encourages them to participate in violence and disorder. Other research cites the role of a sense of belonging to a group, and the idea of identity.

When fans support a team, they create an identity for themselves. Showing aggression and violence towards the opposite team can strengthen and emphasise this group identity. “Aggression and violence are simply the extreme effects of the fierce identification with a particular group, which also implies a strong identification against other teams”, says Hornsey, 2008.


The notion of in-groups and out-groups also plays a role in football violence. The ‘in-group’ (fan’s football team) is seen as superior to the ‘out-group’ (all other teams) resulting in violence.

Social Identity Theory suggests that a fan undergoes ‘deindividuation’, and so loses their personal accountability. “Therefore, the individual supporter will not be regulated by his or her personal moral code, or be restrained by the sanctions that might be associated with any acts of violence”, as quoted by Dunning et al (2014).

The Media’s Contribution

Another suggestion is that the media has, to some degree, instigated violence. The media’s approach to football matches means the idea of competition is so extreme that fans have internalised a polarised view of teams. Sensationalised headlines and violent language used to describe and talk about football incites violence between groups of fans.

Graph showing attendance
Football game attendance is increasing. From the 2015/16 Season to the 2019/20 Season, game attendance climbed by 23%.

Newspapers “often adopted an almost prophetic styles in headlines, such as “Football’s savages—Warming up for the new season” (Daily Mirror, August 20, 1973), or “When is it going to end?” (Liverpool Echo, May 30, 1985) or again “What comes next?” (Toronto Star, May 30, 1985)—which can be considered responsible, at least partially, for the creation of the culture of violence at the basis of hooliganism creating expectations as far as outbursts of violence were concerned”, states Canepari.

No matter what encourages football fans to participate in violence, no-one deserves to go to a match and return with life-changing injuries.

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