The Case against Fan Segregation

A couple of months back, Arsenal’s Europa League fixture against Cologne caused a furore for reasons hardly pertaining to the game itself. While three thousand away tickets had been allocated for the Cologne fans, twenty thousand turned up at the Emirates. Traffic was held up in the streets around the stadium, police riot teams aimed to soothe public disorder and multiple arrests were made, and fear of an “invasion” of the turnstiles by Cologne fans led to kick-off being delayed by an hour.

The Germans fans who had obtained tickets meant for the ‘home’ end, mixed freely with Arsenal supporters and donned Arsenal scarves and shirts and sat in the galleries meant for the home support.  On one hand, the incident throws up the question of the often underestimated skill of touts and other third-party sources who allowed the Cologne fans to slip through the system. The UEFA, who have always advocated for segregation on grounds that it builds up a dynamic atmosphere of competition that leaves the crowd “buzzing”, can hold the organisations of both clubs responsible for the lack of security and order: Arsenal as home team, for not being equipped to handle this unprecedented minuscule exodus, and Cologne for the lack of discipline of its fans.

Hooliganism in football — once active and thriving in England — seemed to have awoken from its long slumber. This infamous rowdiness that has come to be characteristic of the game in Britain was a phenomenon the UK government scrambled to heal following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Prevalent since the 1970s, hooliganism led to the formation of firms that pledged loyalty to each club, their aim being to uphold the sense of local camaraderie by way of mob violence steeped in terrace culture, carelessly disguised in the garb of banter. Post the Heysel and Hillsborough tragedies, the British government and the FA cracked down on football hooliganism. The UEFA rewarded these efforts by lifting the ban on English clubs playing in European competitions.

The “medicine” the government administered to this “English disease” was that of segregating the spectators into ‘home’ and ‘away’ sections. Each section would be allotted individually registered seating areas ensuring that inter-mingling of opposing fans was out of the question. This supposed cure — already injected for the first time in 1967, and later reinforced in 1974 following the mayhem caused by the Red Army of Manchester United, and the fatal stabbing of 17-year old Blackpool supporter Kevin Olsson by a Bolton Wanderers fan — was regurgitated at the start of the 1990s, and for a considerable amount of time, it seemed to do the trick.

A study conducted by the University of Liverpool observed that public disorder that stems from football violence can be efficiently combatted when the police force adopts a policy of dialogue and facilitation rather than deterrence and force. The paper, published by the British Journal of Criminology, is based on a three year observational study of the behaviour of Cardiff City FC who have a history of hooliganism. Two leading strains of thought in crime reduction have been employed to substantiate the study: the ‘Elaborated Social Identity Model’ (ESIM) and the ‘Procedural Justice Theory’ (PSJ). The former asserts that an upward spiral of conflict can be triggered if fans feel that they have been treated unfairly by the police. This would inevitably result in a riot. The latter theory propounds the belief that individuals comply with the law when they perceive that the authorities have dealt with them justly and legitimately.

Dr. Clifford Stott who led the research, opined:
“Our research explored issues of police legitimacy, internal crowd dynamics and social identity and how these function to reduce violent incidents at football matches. We found that policing legitimacy was critically important in determining whether violence occurred or not. Police legitimacy was increased through dialogue and engagement but undermined when police use disproportionate levels of force”

This brings up the issue of the relationship of segregation and violence. The UK government had introduced segregation, thinking it would eradicate football related violence. But what if it was segregation itself which prompted this violence? Though hooliganism dates back to the 1880s, it never assumed dangerous proportions. The energy it generated was always on a steady yet low simmer, never reaching boiling point. It simply characterised football as a ‘gentleman’s game played by hooligans’. The class tensions become apparent with this labelling, and the game was adopted by the British working class as ‘theirs’.

This led to the perception that a game belonging to such a class – dubbed as violent – would, in turn, be violent itself. Segregation was implemented as a divisive strategy to herd one strata of society from another: a ‘protective’ barrier installed to shield the upper crust from the riotous tendencies of the working class. Both the ‘home’ and ‘away’ camps are pressured to feel that the opposing faction is to be feared. This fear of the fans of the rival team provokes each side to “fortify” their own camps.

Game theorists attempt to understand human behaviour by mathematically analysing behaviour patterns. Violence that stems from segregation can be traced by falling back upon chaos theory, namely, level one and level two of chaos. Level one refers to phenomena unaffected by predictions made in relation to that phenomena, while level two denotes phenomena affected by predictions made in relation to it. Patrick McCloskey, a sports writer for A Team of O’Sheas, elucidates upon the two levels by giving the prime example of the weather, since it is unaffected by human behaviour.

In this case, level one chaos would be the weatherman’s prediction of rainfall on a particular day. This mere prediction does not change the chances of it actually raining. However, the statement would cause a trigger in the minds of the masses who have consumed this news. The prediction that it will rain will influence them to arm themselves accordingly to beat the rain. This phenomena classifies as level two chaos. When applying this to violence in fan segregation, level one chaos would be the act of instilling fences to separate fans from opposing teams, in the belief that it would curb hooliganism. But this is merely a prediction of what the authorities think will happen, and has no bearing on what will actually happen. However, level two chaos will be set in motion as a result of level one: the fans, now under the impression that the rival teams are to be seen as a threat, will arm themselves accordingly to combat the situation of violence that may or may not arise.

The Harrington Report on football hooliganism speaks of spectators carrying “knives, hammers, sticks and spikes, choppers and other offensive weapons like powdered pepper which are not necessarily used for violent purposes”, but make threatening displays. The defensive strategy of segregated fans, thus, becomes offensive. Thus the chances of the prediction of violence coming true are increased, and it is here where the police force steps in. The hysteria intensifies and saturates with the presence of this authority figure, instilling the idea that beyond their fence or ‘peace wall’ there is something to be feared, and it must be furiously kept at bay.

But things were not always like this. Segregation in England only became a set scheme towards the end of the 1960s following the Upton Park incident where an influx of Manchester United fans overtook the arena, leaving West Ham United, the home team, in quite a fix where management was concerned. The situation worsened when a few months later, the same two clubs were pitted against each other for another match in the same location. The WHU firm, by then intent on revenge, ensured that rioting was on the cards that day. The chaos that ensued provoked the passing of segregation laws in England in 1967, but football related violence was far from being curbed.

By the late 1970s, a small yet prominent number of black footballers emerged on the field as players. Fan segregation was well in place by the 1980s, and if spectators were not already divided by class barriers, they now fell prey to the race issue. It became a common sight for a stadium’s rival section to ring with racial abuses and monkey chants. The surge in popularity of the far-right National Front was also responsible for elevating racial tensions.

The most notable footballer to be affected was Viv Anderson, the Nottingham Forest full-black who became England’s first black senior international in 1978. John Barnes who made his Football League debut for Watford in 1981, was also targeted with racial abuse by rival fans, which continued after he joined Liverpool in 1987. In 1984, after breaking into the England national football team, Barnes was racially abused during a friendly match in Brazil by a section of England supporters identifying themselves as supporters/members of the National Front.

If the implementation of segregation laws had been truly efficient in the way the government thought, then there would have been no room for even the possibility of Heysel to take place. The usual argument for fan segregation is that it heightens the concept of immersion while building a competitive energy and atmosphere meant to leave spectators reeling. If this is so, then how did the game get by before 1967? Surely, the crowds did not lack energy back when fans were allowed to freely mix. Non-league football tournaments thrive without the implementation of divisive pens. Is it not then a failure on the part of the Premier League to be so dependant on psychological and physical boundaries in order to create excitement?

Conservative newspapers, most notably The Sun, are quick to blame football hooliganism as the sole culprits behind disasters like Hillsborough (The Sun became notorious for its publication of a piece titled ‘The Truth’ where they stuck to this belief. It created such widespread outrage that many newsagents refused to stock the tabloid).

Up until the Arsenal-Cologne incident, segregation and its consequences were perhaps not adequately scrutinized. The simplistic answer to most incidents of violence in football was an essentialist description of hooliganism. The Daily Mail, also known for their Conservative leanings, has presented the debacle in such a manner that the Cologne fans come off as hooligans, reminiscent of those of the previous millennium, while Arsenal and its supporters have been painted as victims.

It is still considered unacceptable by many supporters to see opposition fans sitting in the home section. If any “outsiders” are spotted there is often a clamour for stewards to eject them from the ground, even if they are no threat at all to those sitting around them. Occasionally, the concept of segregation is taken to extreme levels: there have been multiple instances of families and children belonging to the ‘away’ factions being escorted out for cheering for their team while being seated at the ‘home’ end. The response of Arsenal fans after finding German visitors in the same section was conditioned by this attitude.

The issue of the mass infiltration of the Emirates by Cologne fans is still being investigated. Arsenal club manager, Arsene Wenger in his official statement dubbed the visitors as being “clever” enough to evade the ticketing systems, but he too is perplexed by how it happened. Cologne’s manager declined to comment.

But whether or not this mystery is solved, the world of football cannot afford to cast a blind eye on the problem of segregation any longer. This is a classic example of violence giving rise to more violence, and being sitting ducks in the face of such turmoil would only breed further contempt, making Galeano’s description of the fanatic, prophetic:
“The enemy, always in the wrong, deserves a thrashing. The fanatic cannot let his mind wander because the enemy is everywhere, even in that quiet spectator who at any moment might offer the opinion that the rival team is playing fairly. Then he’ll get what he deserves.”

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One thought on “The Case against Fan Segregation

  1. Thank you for writing so wonderfully about such a core issue of football. Your insights have been splendid and yes, I must say that I fail to argue anything on the contrary since your research has been spotless.
    Being an Arsenal fan for nearly 18 years, this incident last year was indeed disturbing for all of us, and there are numerous incidents of simikar nature every year, especially in Eastern Europe and South America.
    Thank you for this. 🙂

    P.S.: The city is actually Cologne but the official name of the football club is FC Köln and not Cologne.

    Liked by 1 person

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