There was a very interesting moment in the MNF game between the Redskins and the Giants when Bennett, having just caught a touchdown, went to the fans and was cheered on by both Giants and Redskins fans, despite the mutual dislike between the two division rivals. This is seemingly bizarre as both teams are happy to acknowledge they are rivals and that they dislike each other but the fans are very happy to get along, in fact they sit in the same areas. This is the same for most sports it turns out: rugby, cricket, baseball, hockey, volleyball, in fact all major sports integrate their fans together except for one glaring example, Soccer.
But what makes soccer different from all these other sports? Why should the worlds most popular sport be the one that segregates people due to their allegiances when other sports do not? Is this a historical thing? Between 1314 and 1667 soccer was banned in England by both local and royal law because of the violence that occurred at the games, both in the crowds and on the pitch. It was not uncommon for players to die on the pitch when tackles went badly or there was a general brawl. Crowds from the local villages that were playing one another would add to the general hostility by throwing objects at the opposing fans. So began the long tradition of hooliganism that has marred the sport since. But that was half a millennium ago, surely as a species we have moved on from that?
Sadly, the answer is no. While it is great that soccer provides a new family for a supporter to join and a sense of community, it is this tribalism that makes some groups of supporters so dangerous. If the world is constantly moving, as it is more and more, with people moving away from home and living in new towns and cities there becomes a greater need to identify with something. Family used to be the group that we relied upon for stability but people typically move away from their families in the first world. Soccer, at least in Western Europe, has become the new grouping.
However, just having a new group of people to socialise with doesn’t make you into a psychopathic nut job does it? No it doesn’t. If that were the case, then the majority of games would end in mindless violence. That doesn’t happen, violence is the exception to the rule. But hooliganism does have ties to this tribalism. The problem is that these groups identify with certain elements of the clubs history or its ancestral makeup, i.e., it was a proletariat club of upstanding Christians. Then you look at the other clubs and notice something about them that doesn’t appeal to you, or you just hate them simply due to regional differences/close proximity.
One of the things about being a Fulham supporter that used to happen, but is not common anymore, is that Fulham supporters were called Cottagers because Fulham plays at Craven Cottage. But a Cottager is an old term for a man who likes to perform homosexual acts upon another man in a public setting, which means that for so many years Fulham was looked down upon because of this name.
Tottenham is historically a Jewish club, a history that has led to them getting some unnecessary abuse over these past few weeks. The ultras, the fanatics of these tribes, identify so much with the club that they are willing to take their hatred beyond the pitch and into the streets. That is why soccer is so dangerous. Because of the tribalism in the sport it fosters these groups like no other sport can. You don’t see rugby fans beating each other in the stands, and there aren’t cases of Cleveland Brown supporters ambushing visiting Vikings fans at the local watering hole. Those things would seem ridiculous. Fans of those sports aren’t fanatics like in soccer. They may be passionate but they aren’t jilted lover passionate.
Why have other sports managed to progress while soccer plainly is stuck in the Middle Ages still? It is most likely because people are allowed to get away with the sort of attitudes at a soccer game that they wouldn’t be able to get away with anywhere else. Soccer provides an outlet for all these ancient stereotypes and the violence that society is desperately trying to get rid of. Plus when you get giant crowds its easy for the ultras to hide in them, and also to rile up the other fans.
The way that soccer has moved in the past ten years had been a good start. Until last year it appeared that the Premier League at least had really been stamping out racism (until Suarez and Terry made idiots of themselves). But this year all the progress seems to have been undone and we appear to be moving back to the Stone Age. Fans of both teams rubbing shoulders would do nothing at this early stage; in fact it would probably create more violence. So unlike in other sports, we should be thinking about how much protection the segregation of fans provides rather than the physical and mental divide this segregation causes.