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August 10, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Hooligans, Gentlemen and the Footy

On 26 July 2009, a fight broke out between fans at an association football match in Honduras. According to fire department chief Carlos Cordero, the Olimpia and Motagua fans fought each other “with everything they had in their hands.” Gunshots were fired, sixteen people injured and two left dead, including a 12-year-old boy.

Cut to 31 July 2009, Westpac Stadium. The Wellington Lions faced off against the Highlanders for the Ranfurly Shield. A cursory bag check was made to see if Salient was packing knife, gun or hip-flask, security guards prowled and a medical station was clearly marked. None of these precautions were needed. The under-capacity crowd had enough trouble mustering a decent cheer, let alone a skirmish in the stands.

A comparison between post-coup Honduras and wintry Wellington is extreme, but the behaviour of the fans in the stands follows a wider trend. Central and South America, most of Europe and the UK have serious problems with sports riots; Australia and New Zealand do not.

Riots around the world

Legendary German football coach Sepp Herberger once said “after the game is before the game”. Although his comment was directed at players, he may as well have been addressing a certain group of supporters known as ‘hooligans’. The term refers to gangs of obsessive fans who come to games as much for the post-match scrap as the match itself.

Hooliganism was first associated with violent, trouble-making football fans in 1960s England. At first, hooligan violence was fairly spontaneous. By the 1970s, gangs of hooligans had organised into ‘firms’. Footy riots got serious, a trend which has spread around the world.

As a general rule, major footy-mad countries have more serious hooliganism issues than smaller ones. Argentina declared football violence as a national crisis in 2002, after realising an average four murders occured at matches per year. In 2007, Italy suspended all matches after a policeman was hit in the face with an explosive during a riot. Even relative small-fry like Bangladesh, Ghana, Poland, Sweden, Turkey and Wales have their regular share of tear gas, stabbings, death threats, murders, injuries and arrests.

The Sunday Times interviewed a gang of Polish football hooligans ahead of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Lukasz Pawlik, a 26-year-old Cracovia fan, described his hatred of rival club Wisla Krakow.

“To say I hate [the Wisla fans] is not enough,” he said, while pulling on a balaclava and reaching for a knife shaped like a miniature axe. “This equipment is now a part of how I fight and it will taste the blood of a Wisla dog tonight.”

A second Polish hooligan, who allegedly carried a knife with a five inch blade and a rubber hosepipe filled with sand, told Times journalist Bob Graham to “tell the English fans we are coming to Germany to hunt them down.

“We will come for them silently and quickly,” he warned. “We hate the Germans and we will fight with them. We admire the English because of their reputation. That’s why we will fight with them. We want to take their reputation as the best fighters.”

The worst riot at the 2006 World Cup turned out to be between English and German fans, the day before the England vs. Ecuador game in Stuttgart. Over 400 English hooligans were taken into protective custody. Police estimate each rioter consumed or threw about 17 litres of beer.

Back in Aotearoa, our one and only claim to sports-riot fame is the 1981 Springbok Tour. Over 150 000 people took part in 200 demonstrations over 56 days, leading to 1500 arrests and numerous injuries. Two pitches were invaded, two matches cancelled, and All Black prop Gary Knight was hit by a flour bomb dropped from a hired Cessna. Quite a good effort, but the extraordinary circumstances of the tour are unlikely to happen again..

Recipe for riot

In June 2005, National Geographic reporter Brian Handwerk asked several leading sports psychologists and researchers to explain why sports riots occur. What he got was a three-step recipe for riot, an insight into the mind of a fanatical sports fan. Salient took a look at how well NZ rugby crowds fit the mold.

Step number one: the fan becomes passionate and identifies personally with the success of the team. Check. Just take a listen to sports talkback, or talk to the battered women who, according to the NZ Herald, experience an increase in domestic violence when the All Blacks get a loss.

Step number two: major sporting events create an ‘anything goes’ environment. Check. The Lions vs Highlanders match at Westpac had face paint, excessive colour coordination, promo boys in boiler suits, promo girls in tiny shorts (in winter), Tui in plastic bottles, a man in a lion suit, bizarre bursts of music and swarms of children. For further proof, refer to the Rugby Sevens. Anything goes.

Step number three: strong group identity makes supporters want to fit in, whether by wearing the right colours or by throwing a bottle. Check. Westpac may have been under capacity, but All Blacks matches draw tens of thousands and bring out the lurking national pride in all of us.

If personal identification with the team, an ‘anything goes’ environment, and the support of a group are all it takes, then every major sporting event in NZ has the potential to become a full-scale bloody riot. In practice, NZ rugby crowds are nearly always well behaved.

Depends on your footy

Association football (aka soccer) is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen, or so the saying goes. Perhaps the chances of a footy riot depend on what type of footy you call footy.

Sports blogger Dave Warner has a theory that physical violence on the pitch prevents physical violence off the pitch.

“Those rugby gentlemen simply take out their frustrations on other players – something that can’t be done in soccer, a game which can often be about frustration,” he writes. “Some teams may try and try to score a goal and come up short, leaving fans so frustrated that they feel the need to vent on something or someone around them.”

Rugby News editor Dave Campbell disagrees. He thinks the culture of rugby in NZ helps prevent hooliganism rather than the nature of the game itself.

“In my experience, rugby is a game which creates a good breed of person. If you’re born into rugby and you play through school, then for clubs, in that environment you become quite well versed in the etiquette.”

“People come together for the love of the game. They don’t get sucked in by the race issues or provincial affiliations [which make people fight]. There’s a degree of respect for the game itself, so you can sit in the crowd with whoever.”

Westpac Stadium marketing manager Steve Thompson suggests that group dynamics also play a part.

“Football competitions overseas attract large groups of males of a certain age that congregate in gang-like situations, like the ultras in Milan,” he says.

“[In NZ], crowds are a bit older, and young people go with their parents so there’s a lot more social control built into the situation.”

Thompson does not think a tradition of hooliganism or sports riots would occur in NZ, even if the fan demographic was similar. “Rugby just doesn’t incite the same intense identity passions as you get with crowds overseas, where people live and die with the performance of the team.”

“It might be our Scottish heritage,” Thompson jokes. “We’re a bit more reserved. We hate losing, but we’re not going to burn down the stand.”

Rise of the boofheads?

The June 2009 test between the All Blacks and France nearly smeared NZ’s hooligan-free record. The alleged attack on French centre Mathieu Bastareaud in Wellington turned out to be a false alarm, but the bottle throwing after the All Blacks’ 22–27 loss to France in Dunedin was not.

“At the end of the game, the French did a victory circuit,” says eyewitness Jamie MacKay. “The whole crowd gave them a standing ovation, until they got to the Terrace and bottles started flying. We’re talking plastic bottles, but some were full so still quite serious missiles. Half of the French team buggered off, but the rest carried on.”

MacKay, a long-standing rugby supporter and the host of Newstalk ZB’s Farming Show, is worried that footy hooliganism is creeping into the rugby crowd.

“You always get a few dickheads in a sports audience but I’ve never seen it to that degree. Hundreds of people were throwing stuff, judging by the amount of missiles thrown out there. Something else I was disappointed with,” he adds, “was the way the crowd viciously booed the French goalkicker.”

“We’re starting to see that sort of thing get more intense in recent years, and it’s a reflection on changes in NZ society. We’re possibly moving towards the British soccer ‘yobbo’ element, though I hope I’m wrong.”

Dunedin Police Inspector Alistair Dickie reassured Salient that the 35 arrests made after the Dunedin test were not a sign of rampant hooliganism.

“It’s not unusual to have a range of people arrested for a range of offences on a Saturday night. Indulgence and alcohol, just a normal Saturday night after a game.”

He admits that “sometimes, after a loss, there is a trend for people to become a bit bitter, to get a wee bit punchy and aggressive.”

‘It doesn’t occur every time, but [we can] see an increase in offences, especially in terms of assaults. On match nights, we usually put extra staff on to monitor behaviour around the city. That can account for the extra arrests, because we’ve got more staff around to see what’s going on.

“On this occasion, the arrests were basically the norm.”

Blessing in disguise

Looks like NZ is fairly set in our quiet, relatively non-hooligan ways. Radio Network rugby commentator Nigel Yalden points out that the culture of association football hooliganism in the UK has taken generations to develop. “It’s life or death for those guys, they’re born into it. If you’re born into a family that supports Manchester, you’ll die as a fan of Manchester. It’s almost a degree of brainwashing,” he says.

Event organisers may wish they could brainwash a few more supporters into buying a ticket, but Yalden believes that our lack of obsession with the national footy is a blessing in disguise.

“I don’t think think [NZ rugby fans] are as passionate as we sometimes claim to be and that’s sometimes a good thing, when you look at the violence overseas.” For wannabe hooligans it seems their only option is the Phoenix.

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About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

Comments (3)

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  1. Adam Howard says:

    Nice article Nina, and you make some good points.

    As an English football fan who held a season ticket to a Premier League club from the age of 5 until I moved to NZ aged 17 I would certainly agree that Rugby fans in this country are less passionate that football fans in the UK.

    However, I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that it is the actual passion of the fans that incites this violence. I’m as passionate a fan as you’ll ever find but I never once felt compelled to fight or knife people, despite witnessing the development of such activity while leaving a match on a few occasions.

    In England it’s accepted for the most part that those ‘hooligans’ who enjoy the fighting and who go out of their way to organise firms etc. are not actually football fans – certainly not pasionate ones, they simply use football as a means to an end.

    It gives them the perfect opportunity to travel to another town or city, engage in some violence and then – if all goes to plan – to leave the area avoiding any real recriminations. Their passion is not for the sport, their passion is for violence, they simply enjoy fighting and the adrenaline rush of fighting – I can’t understand it but I think that’s the case.

    The reason why such a thing doesn’t happen in NZ is perhaps down to a couple of reasons. Firstly, as you mentioned, sport in England has a long history of being associated with violence. However it first started, it is now simply the best option for those type of people who want to experience violence, and in many ways has become something of a tradition. That isn’t the case in NZ, thankfully.

    Secondly, I’d suggest that the relative populations of England and NZ play a significant role in the differing behaviour. Engalnd and the UK is far more densely populated than NZ which by the law of averages means that there are more scumbags there, and they’re all squashed up a bit more.

    Certainly there will be ‘hooligan’ type people in NZ, unfortunately no country is free of them, but because there are fewer of them and because NZ’s population is larely spread more thinly, there are less moments of contact and confrontation between these likeminded groups of people.

    However, violence does still occur, for instance I think the gang culture in NZ is far more pronounced than in the UK (unless you see the football hooligans as gangs) and so that provides an outlet for the violence that these type of people seem to crave, and so sport isn’t needed in the same way.

    So while the term ‘football hooligan’ is no doubt appropriate due to the obvious link between the sport and the violence, it’s not necessarily as clear cut as it appears. Real, passionate football fans like myself attend matches just to support their team, they have no desire to be caught up in any sort of violence and though I’ve been known to pronounce a vendetta against many opposition players or referees in the past, such threats are never carried out.

    The ‘football hooligans’ are rarely actually passionate fans of the sport itself, they simply use it as a means to an end. So passionate support of NZ rugby doesn’t have to be a bad thing and certainly shouldn’t be discouraged, it is only when some people choose to use it as an excuse that it could cause problems and ultimately ruin the good name of a fine sport, which I fear has happened to football and its fans.

  2. Roy MM says:

    Great article, and Alan Howard’s reply is excellent. After living for a period in England and watching horse mounted police rally up the complete fucking idiots ruining everyone’s day, it soon becomes clear they don’t care about football, or anything eles for that matter. I think Alan Howard hit the nail on the head, but I would add the term ‘Football Hooligan’ should be replaced with ‘Fucking Knob’.

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