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.