Respect in football has come a long way in recent times. Gone are the truly dark days of hooliganism that culminated in the condemnation of football supporters in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy.
No longer do black footballers plying their trade in England face the strong likelihood of being subject to flagrant racist chants from the stands, and nothing being done in response.
However, at a base level, football in this country is still undeniably rife with supporter conflict. Such a state of affairs continues to reflect negatively on the sport, acting to detach the game from the societal norms of everyday life and is arguably entirely unnecessary for fan enjoyment.
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It would be folly of me to say that the adversarial nature of football does not come without its perks; competitive rivalry drives elite athletes to perform at their highest level and stimulates interest and debate within the viewing public.
Further, some level of vitriol should almost be expected in the unique atmosphere of a sporting event.
Psychological studies have shown it to be entirely natural for otherwise civil members of the public to display aggressive behaviour in a crowd as a result of a process termed ‘deindividuation’, whereby fans experience “a loss of self-awareness” as an anonymous member of a large group.
Having said this, other sports in the UK have long facilitated such environments and intense rivalries without facing the issues that football has.
Cricket leads by example
As a recent attendee of the third Ashes Test at Edgbaston, it struck me how much of a contrast it provided to typical football stadia; there was a notably more welcoming atmosphere with fans of both teams integrated and no suggestion that any crowd trouble was ever likely to result from any ill-advised crowd banter.
In the Ashes, we’re talking here about a rivalry unparalleled in its respective sport, with roots as far back as 1882, and yet the manner in which it was played out provided a damning illustration of how far behind football is in terms of fan behaviour. Imagining such full-scale fan integration at football matches frankly seems like a pipe dream at this present time.
It is worth noting that on the whole overt fan violence is becoming increasingly episodic and rare; Home Office statistics show the 2013-14 football-related arrest total to be the lowest on record.
Regardless it remains an issue; just four months prior to that very season, David Cameron was reported in The Telegraph as condemning recent fan violence as ‘deplorable’ in the wake of the 29 arrests following the Tyne-Wear derby.
You only have to go as far back as this month to see an instance of riot police being called in to halt fan violence, with outbreaks prior to the Europa League qualifying match between Southampton and Vitesse Arnhem resulting in the arrest of three English supporters.
Has the time not come for all football supporters to question the accepted norm of treating football matches like quasi-wars and instead build a healthier relationship based on mutual respect as well as competition?
BBC Sport recently reported a criminal case in Germany which saw judge Karin Jung offer two 1860 Munich fans guilty of attacking a rival fan the opportunity to buy merchandise of the victim’s team, Bayern Munich, as an alternative to jail time; the judge’s logic being that he “wanted to show that football is football and not a battlefield”.
Maybe if all football supporters echoed such a sentiment, the sport would have a far better reputation than it currently does.
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