Rugby vs Soccer Crowds

A discussion has developed in the comments section of my previous post about the difference between soccer crowds and those of other sports, particularly rugby of both codes and Australian rules football.

In case anyone is unaware of the difference, soccer matches feature heavy police presence before, during, and after the game and the fans of each side are segregated from one another.  The hooliganism during the ’70s to ’90s – particularly in the UK, but also in Europe, especially Italy – brought about draconian measures in the policing and organisation of football matches, and these days soccer matches in England are largely trouble free (at least at the stadia: prearranged fights in nearby car parks still happen).  As well as the police presence, CCTV, zero tolerance policies of the clubs, and the expense of season tickets have all contributed to the current state of affairs (nobody wants to pay several thousand pounds for a season ticket after a 10-year wait, and get a life ban for fighting in the first home fixture of the season).  Despite the relative tranquility of the modern era soccer games, these measures are still very much required to keep it that way.

By contrast, the fans at rugby union and rugby league games are not segregated, and the police are on hand mainly to direct the crowds to and from the stadium and tackle the one or two individuals who misbehave.  I’ve been to plenty of rugby matches of both codes, and sometimes found myself isolated among opposition supporters.  Once at a grand final at Old Trafford I was sat in a Wigan shirt in a sea of thousands of St. Helens fans, their arch rivals.  Wigan scored, the stands opposite me went wild, the stand were I sat remained silent and seated…except me, who stood up and cheered.  Of course, nobody said a word, much less abused me.  Had that been in a soccer ground, I’d have probably been beaten up.

There are several reasons offered for the difference, each with varying degrees of merit.  Alcohol certainly isn’t a factor.  Last year I watched England play France in Paris in the Six Nations, and half the stadium was completely drunk, blokes staggering around in chain mail, others with cockerels on their heads.  Not a sniff of trouble.  Some talk about the tribalism of football and its alleged working class roots, but rugby league is about as working class as it gets, and few places are more tribal than the north-west of England.  So here’s my theory, based on having watched a lot of soccer and rugby live.

If you go to a rugby match, it is overwhelmingly obvious who the toughest men are in the stadium: they are the ones on the pitch.  Those in the crowd might also be tough, but they would get squashed like a bug if they ran onto the pitch and joined in the action.  Modern-day rugby players are enormous, on a different scale than normal people.  Rugby players of the previous eras were not so big, but as tough as nails.  Almost everyone who watches rugby has played it in some form and knows how hard the game is, and therefore how tough the players in front of them are.  Watching a professional rugby match and hearing the thuds and cracks of each collision is a humbling experience.  The unspoken opinion of the crowd is “Ooh, glad I’m not out there!”

Watching rugby is frustrating, but not overwhelmingly so, and the same goes for playing.  For every niggle there is the satisfying thought that in a few moments you can take it out on your opposition with violence seldom seen elsewhere in lawful conduct.  And by and large, the team who is the strongest, fittest, and smartest will prevail.  Generic complaints about poor refereeing aside, rarely does a rugby match end with the feeling that the better side lost unfairly.  Sometimes the better side loses, but there is rarely a feeling of complete injustice.  Disappointment yes, in spades.  But injustice, no.  Passions run high at rugby matches, but generally the referee’s decisions are accepted and the end result deemed fair.

By contrast, soccer is a game which professes to be a non-contact sport but allows just enough contact to hurt people, and make players think they are tough without having to demonstrate anything other than ability to kick somebody in the leg or shoulder-charge them from behind.  As such, it is an extremely frustrating game to watch. Play is interrupted by minor contact, but serious enough for tempers to rise.  Players go to ground as if they’ve been shot, and roll around in order to impress the referee into awarding a foul.  The scoring, being a binary yes/no system with no alternative, means games can be won and lost on the tiniest of margins, and often the team which deserves to win doesn’t.  Contentious decisions abound in every game, and these are held aloft should the match be lost narrowly, or by a team which overall played better.  Passions rage in soccer, probably more so than in rugby, but the passions are accompanied by frustrations, and the frustrations on the pitch are quickly transferred to the crowd.  It’s this gameplay, and the passions it generates, which makes soccer so universally popular the world over and is the key to its success as a spectator sport.  Having been in the middle of both crowds, the football stadiums have far more fire and passion than the rugby grounds, which for periods can be pretty calm even in the most fierce of matches.

Denied the opportunity to whack another player, or watch another player get whacked, the soccer crowd’s hunger for retributory violence following some alleged injustice is never appeased by the action on the pitch.  With soccer players not being physically intimidating, and the gameplay relatively benign, the humility felt by those watching a live rugby match doesn’t exist in a soccer crowd.  Without the acceptance that the toughest people are on the pitch, the assumption is that they must be in the crowd and inevitably some will try to prove it.  With yet more people feeling tough when backed by a crowd, it doesn’t take much for a fight to start.

Over time, this has evolved into soccer crowds being as much about the passion, the identity, and the attendance itself rather than the particulars of the action on the pitch.  For many people the latter has become merely an excuse for the former, whereas rugby fans always go first and foremost to watch the contest between the sides with the atmosphere and the cheering taking second place.

It’s my view that both sets of crowds have their place and there is little point in trying to make soccer fans more like rugby fans, simply because the games are so fundamentally different and thus the crowds have evolved in different ways.  You might just as well try to make all cats be more like dogs.  My enthusiasm for soccer has waned recently in favour of rugby and cricket, but there’s no denying its incredible popularity and ability to fire up whole nations in a way that no other sport can do on such a scale.  I’m merely happy the two types of crowds can exist side-by-side quite happily, often cohabiting in the same stadium.

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27 thoughts on “Rugby vs Soccer Crowds

  1. Then how do you explain the safeness of, for example, the Scottish football grounds of my youth? (Well, as long as the two horrible Glaswegian tribes were absent: their quarrels weren’t much to do with football.) In mid-season, kick-offs were early so the supporters would have a had a drink beforehand, I’d think; early- and late-season there would be a three o’clock kick-off so they’d more often have a drink afterwards, I’d imagine. But I could go on my own, aged about twelve, pass through unsegregated crowds and stand in an unsegregated “Boys’ Enclosure”. I could depart after the game to get fish’n’chips and catch the bus home, perfectly secure among the two sets of supporters.

    In those days many of the supporters liked to gather behind the goal that their side was attacking. At half-time there would therefore be countercurrent flows of both sets of supporters, and no trouble that I ever saw or heard about. You’d even be safe with visitors from Glasgow, as long as they were neither Celtic or Rangers ; Third Lanark, Clyde, Queen’s Park, the Jags; they were all OK as far as I can remember.

  2. I have no idea how the shift happened, but happen it did. Evolution does take a while, and maybe it just needed time to develop, along with other social factors? I dunno, but I think rugby crowds are self-regulating in a way that football crowds aren’t. And I think there is a lot of truth in the saying “football is a gentlemen’s game watched by thugs, whereas rugby is a thug’s game watched by gentlemen”.

    BTW, I worked with an elderly Mancunion who used to tell me about the contra-flowing supporters at half time in the ’50s and ’60s at Old Trafford.

  3. Football didn’t change much between the fifties and the late 60s … or so I was about to say. But hang on; it couldn’t be, could it, that 1966 gave English football supporters a sense of entitlement that did damage? Well, I doubt it. (I was abroad when that World Cup final was played, so I have no idea about its impact.) So back we go; it wasn’t the football that changed, it was the society.

    But then the thing to explain is how the supporters of both rugby codes resisted the nasty aspects of those social changes.

  4. That’s what I tried to explain here, by venturing the theory that the difference lies in the game itself. Football supporters do not act like football supporters when they go to rugby matches, whatever the reason the crowd reacts to the action on the pitch. In rugby, the crowds are self-regulating enough to resist whatever happened to the football crowds.

  5. Will you be around long enough to go to an AFL game at the MCG? I think you’ll find your theory holds up pretty well with AFL as well.

  6. When trying to understand the reason for the rampant soccer hooligan in England the best source of information is that of the numerous successful prosecutions that were brought against various ringleaders from various teams.

    When you do this you will see that all the convicted “Top Men” were not characteristic of the typically, drunken, teenaged chav randomly engaging in violent behavior in so called tribal loyalties. What you see with the Top Men was this type of profile:

    – Late twenties to early thirties that got involved in soccer in hooliganism in their teenage years and usually had a previous conviction for violence;

    – They were gainfully employed some in professional careers, appeared to be happily married family men with all the trappings of normality including mortgages, cars, sport, social life etc;

    – They exhibited very well honed skills and obsessive behaviour in the planning, organizing and executing of attacks with military precision;

    – They maintained meticulous records of their conquests, press clippings, police reports, victim tally lists etc; and

    They were typically sober and of sound mind when they commanded and overseen their attacks.

    Like I said this is not the profile of a drunken chav, this is the profile of a well organised leader with strategic objectives and the wherewithal to carry their plans out in such a way that they continually out manoeuvred police intelligence and opposing teams fans tactic’s.

    All of the witness statements of serious and bloody events made the point that the sudden and gratuitous violence was always a surprise, intense, victorious and the police were either at a decoy or not expecting them to turn up at that spot. Ie they were looking at all train arrivals from London, but the inner city firm arrived at some obscure station that did not cater for London commuters. When they ransacked Glasgow at the last Scotland England match up there, no one knew about their trail of destruction until after the game was finished when they found out that they had systematically carried out a military style attack on a number of pubs, left a trail of carnage and disappeared of the face of the earth before any response could be mustered. We are talking about English in Glasgow here!

    So what I am saying is that the worst of the violence was orchestrated and carried out by self appointed leaders that knew what they were doing and knew how to organise the thugs, recruit the fighters, how to finance an operation, what police intelligence was doing and where they were going to be. Some of them used to leave very well made calling cards with statements about who had just done them etc behind at the scene or in victims pockets.

    My theory is that this leader was created during their teenage years and was formed by a reaction to the over stating of hooliganism in the media and the heavy handed police response to the rising problem. This reactionary movement has been proven many times in many similar situations for example the mods and the rockers and the increasing spiral of violence created by media sensationalism and increased police presence.

    No doubt there were other groups that aligned with these leaders, right wingers, racists booing black English players, criminal elements, followers seeking an identity, fighters and opportunists. This type of leader will always emerge in response to media stimulation and police crackdown.

    The inner city firm guy that I mentioned in my other post that I met in Thailand was in Thailand on a criminal enterprise. He was a fighter and a criminal but not a leader.

  7. @Boy on a Bike: I went to an AFL game at the back end of last season, Collingwood vs Essendon at the MCG. What should have been a classic was a farce, with Essendon not even getting on the scoreboard until deep into the second quarter. It was in the middle of the supplements scandal, and they really weren’t all there. But yes, I noticed the crowd was noisy but well behaved.

  8. @Bardon: that is exactly right regarding the profile of the top men. And one of the most ironic things about the violence in Holland in Euro 2000 was that the main ringleader of the England hooligans was a Welshman!! Swansea City fan, or something.

  9. The other thing that I only touched on and maybe sheds some light on the rugby difference is the effect of the tabloids especially the red topped ones on outcomes. The tabloids in their efforts to sell, sensationalise violence, they also don’t show the Italian supporter initially throwing the projectile at the English fan, but they do show the tattooed, bare chested, union jacked, angry, anglo aggressively retaliating and throwing it back at them, this sells. The tabloid readership wont pay to see Italians behaving like hooligans, but they will pay to see English behaving like English, if you know what I mean. It also gives the perpetrators a raison d’être, the mods and the rockers were a perfect illustration of this tabloid induced violence.

    Typical union supporters are not as influenced by tabloids and league supporters, the ones that can read that is, were of to small a readership volume to be catered for. The sales are to be made to the Johns.

    So if the new problem of soccer violence that emerged in the sixties were not sensationalised by the tabloid media and if the police took a different approach than throwing the kitchen sink to appease political and media pressure, maybe we would not have seen it peak at such a horrific level as it did.

    Also on the allegiances of the Top Men, apparently the entire squadron that were involved in bashing and slashing up hundreds of Glaswegians that I mentioned above, left Glasgow immediately after ie they did not even attend the game!

  10. There’s obviously multiple factors at play here; psychos who want to lead a tribe to war, disaffected youth who want to belong and the the vast majority who find themselves caught up in it and react in different ways.Personally, I’ve been to a couple of wendyball matches in the English Premier League and regretted it each time for exactly the reason you gave; frustration.Added to the fact that I don’t appreciate being treated with the assumption that I cant behave myself.The Watford ground is amusing as it is shared between wendyball and rugby; go there on a Saturday and the concession stand serves soft drinks only. The following day when Saracens are playing you can get a couple of pints, a cheeky shiraz and a single malt.

  11. My father explained the difference to me when I was a child thus: Rugby is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans; football is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.

  12. In Sydney, I was told that rugby union is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, and rugby league is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.

    However, subsequent evidence that has come to light has tended to suggest that rugby league players are not gentlemen.

  13. I used to turn out for the soccer side that my rugby club entered in a Summer Football League. It was striking how it confirmed stereotypes. Above all, we had to learn how to beat players who were more skilful than us, but slighter, much less fit, and disinclined to tackle big chaps in a hurry. The answer was teamwork, so that our side would be involved in more or less continuous discussion during play, with a big pow-wow at half-time. The soccer players were largely glumly silent, save for the odd barked, rather stupid instruction. After each victory, we’d find they’d slunk away instead of joining us for a beer. Dismal, dim buggers, they were.

  14. Michael, I did think that Billy Slater espoused perfect gentlemanly conduct when he reprimanded that lout in Manchester recently, his response was also well chosen in the particular context. I always highlight this preferred conduct to my children.

  15. dearimeie, you have just triggered a bad memory for me about how I made the successful transition from soccer to union. I was on the sideline for soccer trials for the school team and then I got my big opportunity and entered the field of play.

    My first touch of the ball resulted in me scoring an own goal and I was quickly taken off and the scout never called me back. I thus entered the union environment severely bent out of shape, but I thought I had fully recovered up until I read your post.

  16. Michael, I did think that Billy Slater espoused perfect gentlemanly conduct when he reprimanded that lout in Manchester recently, his response was also well chosen in the particular context.

    That seems to happen with every world cup. The Canadian RU captain sorted out some lout on the tube during a previous world cup, and the Samoan captain duffed up some idiot in Cardiff during another. Wouldn’t surprise me if it’s undercover journalists trying to whip up a story, with the most recent arrival on the desk told to take a smack in the chops for the team.

  17. Rugby Union rather than Rugby League, but much English coverage of the 2003 World Cup in Australia consisted of reports of all the nasty things Australians were playing about the English team. In actual fact, what they were doing was making somewhat exaggerated reports on what the Sydney Daily Telegraph (a tabloid) was saying. When you took the tabloids away, you had an actual event in which the level of sportsmanship (and the general level of goodwill) on all sides – players, officials, and fans – was as high as I have ever seen at a major sporting event. By the end I was rather irritated that they did not report this.

  18. Tim, I wouldn’t put it past the media to pull a stunt like that either. Although in this case the fact that he went back into to get his jacket that he perviously forgot probably rules out preplanning.

  19. As you are probably aware Michael, the Australian media came under the spotlight for allegedly fanning the flames of racial tension during the Cronulla riots. Interestingly enough in this situation “The Australian” also came under fire for this questionable conduct along with the usual serial offending tabloids and talk back radio.

  20. TNA,

    Let me explain and no it doesn’t have any relation to prewarning. I guess that you may think that pre in front of plan is redundant. This is not the case when you are describing the time before planning began. If you check Websters definition of preplan that will hopefully clear it up for you. If after that you are still confused, then its a seven letter Scrabble word if that is of any help.

  21. Good points. Just like to add that rugby does seem to carry a lot of similarities to the american NFL. Big bad guys beating each other up watched by pacified spectators. The scoring too is very linear and progress of a team is readily available in the form of downs and yards even when the score are close….unless both teams suck. Sorry about the Jaguars visiting London though.

  22. My daughter went to watch the NFL at Wembley. I told her she should take a good book. Afterwards she said I’d been right.

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