Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Moral Culpability and Hooliganism in European Football
Incidents like yesterday's fan violence at the Italy Serbia Euro qualifier in Genoa follow a similar pattern. Journalists and bloggers await the match while discussing the usual tidbits about injured players and group tables and previous encounters and betting odds, when suddenly something happens that goes beyond the meeting of two footballing nations, like fans throwing flares on the pitch while systematically destroying crowd barriers.
The first instinct for many when witnessing this sort of thing is to defer to experts to decipher the political hieroglyphics (banners, flags, chants) and underlying socioeconomic causes (joblessness, alienation). We quickly decide those Serbian "fans" are an isolated group of unemployed yobs, the easy victims of some far-right movement cashing in on some mysterious thousand-year nationalistic grievance you'd have to be a PhD student to understand. Because of the hopeless number of causal latices criss-crossing their way through the minds of these aggressive fans, most neutral observers feel it's best to avoid the whole question of why. Better to point the blame at organizers for "allowing" this to happen ("why were these fans permitted to travel to Italy?") than look into the more obvious question of why anyone would do this sort of thing at a football match—something fun, something that's supposed to give happiness—at all.
You see this sort of thing often in European football. Following the arrest of eleven fans at a QPR Millwall clash this past September for example, QPR manager Neil Warnock found it easier to blame the Championship match scheduling for the trouble: "It doesn't make sense and you'll never get any sense out of them [football's authorities]. It will be a computer or somebody who has never kicked a football or thought about fans."
Thought about fans—that is, how they're essentially prone to violence. How they need exterior environmental controls (early kick off times, repossessed passports) in order to prevent them from behaving like thugs. A force of nature you need to contend with, like the weather. This kind of thinking was behind some of the discussion of the violence in Genoa yesterday. An ostensible "cause" was identified—the loan of goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic to Red Star Belgrad rival Partizan from Sporting Lisbon—and the resulting "effect"—the deliberate obstruction of a football match, fascist saluting, the unfurling of a banner reading "Kosovo is Serbia"—was described as "insane" but in keeping with the internal logic of the nationalist ultras. It's an alchemy beyond our understanding.
This septic and ultimately safe method of interpreting these kinds of events conveniently robs those young men of real culpability for their actions. I say convenient because most educated people would rather avoid the whole sticky question of personal moral agency, usually because they think it goes hand-in-hand with a Thatcher-esque "tough on crime" view, harsher sentences and more prison. Moral agency has long been a derided concept among many on the political left, because it implies that outside environmental factors play no role in determining individual choices, whether it be to commit a robbery or assault an Italian police officer, and that the solution therefore should be punishment and more punishment.
But skirting discussion of direct moral culpability plays into the hands of the neoliberal world view, which holds that economic status can override the bonds of nationalism, ethnicity, race and religion. Europe has come to believe that the problems of the not so long past—violently aggressive hooliganism at football games—has been "solved" in part by the gentrification of the modern game. Why would anyone want to belt someone at a football game or set flags on fire, or say racist things when they have a a retirement savings plan and a good mortgage? Just as the "poor will always be with us," so too will the hooligans, the racist ultra-nationalists, the guys with flares doing the Hitler salute—all that is left to do is properly control them, or better yet, price them out of the game entirely and hope they just go away.
Meanwhile, incidents like yesterday's remind us that the problem hasn't gone away. And these hooligans are never "isolated" elements—they live and operate within the norms of European society. They're not all hard up NEETs who just need a good job in order to slough off the attractions of a rabid nationalist right-wing. I don't want to speak to Serbia in particular, but the last two decades of international incident in that country are a clear indicator that low economic status alone is far from the only factor at work behind the imagery and politics of last night. Neither is it an accident of history that English supporters in particular have been long feared in continental circles.
These kinds of incidents are hard to explain, they are complicated, but they need to be talked about in the open, not passed on to experts or dismissed out of hand as complex anomalies or an unfortunate but inevitable expression of the dark side of human nature. Nor is football necessarily doomed to be the sport of choice of those who would rather wave flags than enjoy a nice evening classic. Moral culpability is not a simple concept, but it does point to something beyond sociological determinism—that we as human beings, and as football fans, have a choice about how we behave, what we believe, who and what we blame for our problems and our actions. As long as that choice exists, we can begin to move beyond a culture that implicitly tolerates the behaviour of thugs intent on using football as a vehicle for violence.
Posted by Richard Whittall at 1:30 PM