Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Historical commentary. Although football hooliganism has only been recognised since the 1960s, it is not a new phenomenon. Described as the ‘English Disease’, football hooliganism has been evident since the inception of British football when players were routinely kicked and punched by opponents. In addition to personal injury, property was also destroyed in the course of a match, including fields, fences, homes and businesses within the main streets of the village or wherever the game was played.

Many of the bans imposed on football have been a result of the amount of violence the game attracted, as highlighted by the following incident in 1576: “A group of artisans in Ruislip with unknown malefactors to the number of a hundred, assembled themselves unlawfully and played a certain unlawful game, called football, by reason of which unlawful game there arose amongst them great affray, likely to result in homicides and serious accidents.”

During the 1970s & 1980s, modern British football was at its most violent and racist. The rise of far- right political groups and the skinhead movement contributed to the climate of football hooliganism. And when players such as Clyde Best, Vivian Anderson and Laurie Cunningham began to play in the football league, British fans began to racially abuse the players, who were subjected to being spat upon, monkey chants, having bananas thrown at them and various other forms of abuse that mocked their colour.

However, this was not the first time that players of African descent had played at local level and been subjected to racial insults. Guyanese born Andrew Watson (1856-1921) was the first black footballer to be capped three times during 1881 and 1882. Arthur Wharton (1865-1930) and Jack Leslie (1901-1988) were other notable footballers of African descent who played football during the late 19th and early 20th century.

In 1991 as a response to growing racism within football, the 1991 Football Offenses Act stated in section two, regarding the throwing of missiles:

It is an offence for a person at a designated football match to throw anything at or towards—

(a) the playing area, or any area adjacent to the playing area to which spectators are not generally admitted, or

(b) any area in which spectators or other persons are or may be present,

without lawful authority or lawful excuse (which shall be for him to prove).


Shaun Wright-Phillips. Photo courtesy

Shaun Wright-Phillips. Photo courtesy

In section three of the same Act, it stated in regard to racist or indecent chanting:

(1) It is an offence to [engage or take part in chanting of an indecent or racialist nature at a designated football match].

(2) For this purpose—

(a)chanting” means the repeated uttering of any words or sounds (whether alone or in concert with one more others)]; and

(b)of a racialist nature” means consisting of or including matter which is threatening, abusive or insulting to a person by reason of his colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins

The modern game of football has its roots in a mixture of ancient rituals and customs. The earliest customs associated with using a ball were based on ancient fertility rites, when the ball was kicked to propagate the ground. Later it was used in divination to foretell future events. During the 8th -18th century football was an unruly and violent game without the well laid out pitches and rules we have today. The carrying of banners, with its roots in warfare was adopted into the game, and like the regimental colours that an army takes into battle, football supporters show allegiance to their team by wearing their colours.

Week after week, players and supporters go into battle for the honour of points, prestige and ultimately a victory trophy. Today, most football violence takes place off the pitch; however, violence does erupt on the pitch in the form of fouling, deliberate hitting, kicking and fighting between players. Though history testifies that the violent element has remained, some teams are more renowned for their racist supporters and the violence they perpetrate.