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When cheering turns violent: the dark side of English Football

Written By Bethanie Turner


CW: Sexual assault, Domestic violence


England’s defeat against France in the 2022 World Cup quarter finals left many disheartened. The expected response from fans should be to congratulate the other team and celebrate England’s efforts for making it so far. But the sad reality is that many fans can’t handle losing with respect and often respond with abuse. For all the joy football brings us, it seems as though English football has been blighted by hostility more than at any point in history. Recent events, such as the World Cup, have given light to a darker side of the game: which is that racism, violence, and misogyny continue to taint English football.


This is the uncomfortable truth of our nation’s beloved sport.


So, when did this so-called ‘beautiful’ game become consumed by such a hostile environment?


Well, disorderly behaviour is a long tradition of football and England fans have been associated with ‘hooliganism’ since the 1980s. Major disturbances, such as fans attacking opposing supporters to singing racist chants, have dominated headlines for decades. Since then, governments have aimed to reduce the scale of hooliganism, but it seems as though we have made little progress.


The spectre of crowd violence has returned to English football and was most notably seen during the 2020 UEFA Euros. England’s loss to Italy in the finals served us all a clear reminder that hostility and racism are still prevalent within the football community. Following England’s defeat, three black players: Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford were subjected to verbal racist abuse after missing penalties. So-called ‘fans’ were quick to use their phones as weapons, tweeting monkey emojis and vile racist slurs including the N-word.


A minority of fans also vandalised a mural dedicated to the players, defacing the art with racist graffiti which stated: ‘We do not stand with the 3 black lions.’ This happened within a couple of days of England losing and makes us question why there is so much aggression around a sport which many claim to love.


I understand that emotions run high when watching a game of football but is racism the right way to respond when your team loses?


(Twitter/@SUTR_NE)


Hostility is not limited to online abuse either, with football hooligans engaging in physical violence. This “fight club” subculture is organised through social media, including attacks on rival teams in and outside stadiums which affect bystanders who want to enjoy a game of football.


Unfortunately, the violence does not stop there, as tensions can transcend into the home.


By now, you may have seen the chilling campaign, ‘He’s Coming Home’ launched by Women’s Aid. The charity released the campaign on Friday 25th November 2022, to coincide with England’s match against the USA in the World Cup and to signal the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The minute-long advertisement highlights that for many in abusive relationships, sporting tournaments signal a time of fear not celebration.


This year, the World Cup took place during the winter months, which meant that more fans stayed at home to watch the event. Sports spectatorship is associated with increased alcohol consumption and drinking at home during football tournaments can exacerbate pre-existing abuse. While football does not in itself cause domestic violence, it can be a catalyst for incidents to spike. Research from the University of Lancaster shows that domestic abuse increases by 38% when England lose during World Cup matches. The powerful campaign was developed in response to this statistic, impacting individuals all over the world. Many people reposted the advert on social media, urging women to get help and reassuring them that they are not alone.


This campaign reminds us that if football can bring us together to support our national football team, then we can also be brought together to tackle domestic abuse.


Although football does not cause abuse, there is no denying that it fosters a broader culture whereby misogynistic and sexist comments pass as ‘banter’. For example, the ‘Nottingham Is Full of Fun’ chant contains sexist lyrics and is still sung at games, despite attempts to eradicate the song. The chant has divided football fans, with many arguing it should be seen as light-hearted banter. But not all fans feel this way, as Stuart, a Nottingham Forest fan told CBJ News, “I’m reluctant to take my daughters to the match because of the chant and the general misogynistic atmosphere that exists in the ground”. This ingrained ‘laddish’ culture in the football community has deterred people like Stuart from attending matches and results in many individuals feeling uncomfortable at football games when they do attend.


Viewing these comments or chants as jokes can result in sexist behaviour becoming normalised, and this can become a gateway for other behaviour to slide such as sexual assault. This was the case for Amber, a previous follower of the England men’s team. Whilst travelling to Wembley for the Euro 2020 final, Amber was sexually assaulted. Amidst the chaos, someone put their hand up her skirt and she has vowed to never attend a football match again. Sadly, Amber’s experience is one of many and cases like hers warrant way more attention.


Football should be enjoyable for all but the current environment it fosters is making this hard. So, how can we break this cycle of discrimination and help football become more inclusive?


I believe anti-discrimination is about education in the widest sense. Individuals tend to abuse others who are different because of attitudes developed through misconceptions, but this can be challenged with the help of fans. Whether it be through educating yourself and friends on discrimination or reporting abuse at football matches, you can contribute to changing these attitudes in the football community.


Next time you are watching a football event, think about your values and be conscious of your behaviour, as when England lose; everyone suffers.



Cover photo sourced from Sky News, *Perspectives claims no rights to photos


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