The Night of Nancy: Social Psychology and Football

November 30, Nancy, France: a dark day for European football. What should have been an exciting night of UEFA Cup football, ended in a disaster. The first news reached the Netherlands during the day that certain Dutch folks related to the football club Feyenoord had caused severe riots in the city of Nancy. Feyenoord had warned the French police in advance that problems could occur, and had requested of its own fans to not cause problems because of prior warnings of the UEFA (the European football association). Those rioting were allowed in the stadium, and, as one could guess, the game ended in fights, vandalism, with the French police using tear gas to put a halt to the riots. The game had to be suspended for half an hour, with Feyenoord fearing the worst for its European future. Hooliganism is seen as a severe public problem, and important steps are currently being discussed in Dutch politics to prevent further disasters.

Internet forums were filled with angry responses from all sides, for and against Feyenoord. Commonly heard responses referred to the majority of those involved in the riots as primates, who have ingested as many pills as possible, and that these primates should be locked away for life, etc. I will not intend to argue that the stereotype of 'hardcore hooligan' is not based on a true, existing individual, nor will I intend to argue that no responsibility lies with the individuals involved with these riots. However, to merely focus on the statements (which appear to be mere coping responses) severely limits the potential to understand the problem and to possibly come to any viable solutions. Rather, based on hooligan-research largely carried out at the University of Liverpool and via the Dutch Police Academy as well as through the tenets of group emotions, I will argue that the French police, the UEFA, and both soccer clubs should be held more responsible than is currently the case.

For example, Stott and Adang (2004) indicate that (following figures from the English National Criminal Intelligence Service) in England the majority of individuals that are arrested during football riots have no prior involvement with football-related violence. Hence, the argument that only ‘drug-ingesting primates’, predisposed towards violence, are involved in these incidents is entirely unfounded. What then, can account for these constant conflicts between Feyenoord-fans, their rivals, and the police?

One explanation might lie in the strong ties these football fans have with their club. Most European football fans are familiar with the reputation of Feyenoord fans being very strongly connected and loyal to their club. Feyenoord supporters, as for example also ADO Den Haag and FC Utrecht in the Netherlands, or Liverpool in England, have a reputation for their loyalty. However, that loyalty might present part of the problem.

Common sense does not explain why the most gentle father, perhaps a hard-working administrative assistant, suddenly turns into a fighting machine in a football stadium. Social psychology might provide an explanation: it might well be the connection to a group. A connection to one’s group has been explained in Social Identity Theory (SIT, e.g. Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). According to SIT, all individuals have a strong need to positively relate themselves to a group. In our example, this group would be ‘Feyenoord fans’, who generally have a very strong connection to their club. Short and (perhaps too) simple, the Feyenoord fan shares a set of group norms and he or she will classify him- or herself in that category, separate from others, who for example support Ajax. The behavior of this person cannot be reduced to his or her individual behavior (e.g. the behavior commonly exhibited by the gentle father), and this individual’s ‘Feyenoord’ or ‘Ajax’ identity will strongly influence his or her behavior. Of course, the ‘Feyenoord supporter’ category (and not the category of for example being an administrative assistant or gentle father) will be particularly salient during a football match.

Why would this strong connection play such an important role in ‘hooliganism’? Theories on emotions explain how individuals initiate actions ( action tendencies, e.g. Frijda, 1993) after experiencing and appraising an emotion. Frustration of not obtaining a certain goal for example could lead to anger. This anger, in turn, can be turned into aggression to another individual(s). The group identity thus also influences how a person feels (i.e. a  group emotion) and accordingly acts towards another group (e.g.Mackie, Devos, & Smith 2000).

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