1 June, 2009Issue 9.6EuropePolitics & SocietySocial PolicySport

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The Spectre of the Hooligan

Mark Baker

footballAnastassia Tsoukala
Football Hooliganism in Europe:
Security and Civil Liberties in the Balance

Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
192 pages
ISBN 978-0230201149

To the horror of Western Europe’s liberal intelligentsia, the ancient alliance between popular attitudes and muscular executive force has excluded asylum seekers and radical Muslims from “normal” society. Yet the same intelligentsia that has campaigned against the unlawful treatment of these groups has turned a blind eye to the de-humanisation and denial of civil liberties affecting the young, male football supporter. Away from the headlines of asylum prisons and 42-day detention, suspected football hooligans have been demonised in a pan-European spiral of social construction, which implicates governments, the EU, police forces, and the media.

Football Hooliganism in Europe is Anastassia Tsoukala’s effort to expose this trend. Turning to the histories of European lawmaking and law enforcement, Tsoukala, a professor of criminology at Paris XI, traces the process by which the football hooligan became a modern folk devil. Despite its flaws, her book admirably attempts to redirect academic focus toward the less recognised—but no less oppressive—manifestations of the contemporary obsession with security.

As Tsoukala makes clear, the demonisation of football hooliganism is an outgrowth of a new security paradigm in which “non-traditional threats” justify disproportionate executive power. Within this frame, sub-groups like the asylum seeker, the radical Muslim, and the hooligan are violated due to pre-emptive assessments of “risk”. This process occurs independently of violence itself, facilitating the erosion of human rights across Europe.

For instance, in Britain, the Football (Disorder) Act 2000 allows authorities to ban suspected hooligans from stadiums and restrict them from traveling abroad to games through passport confiscation. Authorities can take these measures on the basis of police complaint alone. Violating the principle of proportionality and illustrating the punitive bite of civil orders, the law has allowed restriction of movement—and even detention—during “control periods” of suspected hooliganism. By the time of the 2006 World Cup, 3,286 of these banning orders were in force in England and Wales.

In February of that year, one case, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester v. Davies, deliberated on a man who received a football banning order based on a complaint, despite the failure of either policemen or CCTV footage to identify him. In another case, a man received a banning order after a bottle was thrown in a pub, even though authorities could not positively identify the man as the perpetrator. Such “guilt by membership in a disorderly group” is a common, if patchy, pattern that feeds on the arbitrary predilections of local constabularies and magistrates.

This pattern persists across Europe. In France, Law (2006)-64, ostensibly an anti-terrorism measure, bans people from stadiums who have been found guilty of certain offences. Germany, Belgium, and Italy have similar measures in place. Moreover, even after these bans have expired, offender backgrounders remain on shared databases across Europe, contrary to the stipulations of the European Convention on Human Rights. Apart from infringing on the right to freedom of movement, these civil laws circumvent the procedural guarantees of the criminal justice system, most notably the crucial tenet of “innocent until proven guilty”. In this way, bans on football hooliganism constitute a noteworthy shift from traditional criminal justice toward what criminologist David Garland has called “the culture of control”.

But do football hooligans really matter? After decades of critical work by academics, the problems and implications of persecuting asylum seekers and radical Muslims are relatively clear. But aren’t football hooligans simply a case of deviant—or, as New Labour would have it, “anti-social”—people getting the punishment they deserve? Aren’t the control orders simply a way to prevent destruction of life, property, and public order?

For Tsoukala, the answer is a resounding no. While she does not deny the realities of football violence, Tsoukala asserts that football bans reveal latent ideologies—and key contradictions—in contemporary crime-control practices. In a skillful historical survey, she explains how a concrete, continent-wide legal framework specific to sports-related violence first emerged after 39 Juventus supporters were killed during a fight at Belgium’s Heysel Stadium in 1985. She then explores how this framework exhibits overlaps with approaches to similarly imagined non-state threats, such as recent legislation designed to combat terrorism, drug networks, and riots. The genealogy provides a timely corrective to the praise heaped on the policing of the 2006 World Cup: Tsoukala demonstrates that the measures the media has lauded—police co-operation, database sharing, and cross-European passport revocation—are a triumph of self-reinforcing logic and pernicious social construction.

While her analysis of legal history is compelling, Tsoukala’s survey of academic research on the phenomenon of hooliganism displays a myopic commitment to her own arguments about the problem at hand. She hastily dismisses decades of economic, social, and psychological research on sports-related violence, most notably the work of sociologists Peter Marsh and Eric Dunning. A more thorough acknowledgment of this research would add depth and empirical force to Tsoukala’s analysis, and perhaps more importantly, would endear her to—rather than alienate her from—the academics she aims to convince.

In the end, the problem with Football Hooliganism in Europe is that Tsoukala only hints at what she might state more explicitly: that the construction of the anti-hooligan hyperbole is as much about economics as it is about a social construct. Who wins in this economic exchange? All involved: newspapers whip up a storm to sell more newspapers; police forces point to the newspaper reports and get more resources; and European institutions such as Interpol emphasise (or perhaps invent) the transnational aspect of the problem to justify their coercive measures. In this system of internal logic, actual events bear little relation to outcomes: either violence occurs, necessitating more punitive measures, or it does not, in which case the preventive apparatus is praised, extended, and replicated. To some extent, the War on Terror works the same way.

Tsoukala gives too little time to these sorts of motivations, which underlie the very social construction she indicts. But she does succeed in convincing the reader that football hooliganism matters. This contribution should not be overlooked, for the patterns Tsoukala highlights suggest the need for more critical assessment of European laws and institutions. They also speak to the continued presence of impetuous punitive measures in Europe, which discriminate against particular persons based on prejudices and assumptions.

The precedent set by banning and restricting alleged hooligans, a precedent of “punishment on the basis of suspicion”, is dangerous, and the prevalence of such bans illustrates the need to keep a sharp eye on European institutions—the Council of Europe, the European Commission, and increasingly the European Parliament—that have undermined their own “rights and freedoms” rhetoric in the treatment of sports-related violence. In short, the continued failure to critique football-hooligan bans permits an erosion of the very values Europeans claim to uphold. By highlighting this paradoxical process, Tsoukala has not merely provided a new slant on a single phenomenon; she has shown that the seemingly banal control machinery of European integration can and does infringe on hard-won rights.

Mark Baker is reading for an MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford.