To those who aren't fans of the game — and some who are — soccer is indelibly associated with hooligans, the British tabloids' term of choice for young male fans who engage in rowdy, violent behavior. This phenomenon has been studied extensively, but one research report stands out as particularly vivid.
Writing in the British Journal of Social Psychology, a trio of researchers led by the University of Liverpool's Clifford Stott reported that during the 1998 World Cup finals in Marseilles, fans of the English team got into numerous brawls, while fans of the Scottish team managed to express their loyalty without resorting to rioting. Why did violent behavior become the norm with one group but not the other?
Through a series of "observations, informal conversations, [and] unstructured and semi-structured interviews" with 121 English and Scottish supporters, the researchers uncovered a pattern of events and assumptions that led to a belief, among the English, that violent behavior was acceptable, and a different belief altogether for the Scots. Nearly two-thirds of the English fans reported experiencing "persistent taunts, threats and at times unprovoked violence from large groups of local youth." Many said the police were taking the locals' side and refusing to protect the English.
As news of these confrontations spread among the supporters, "violent action toward out-group members came to be understood as legitimate and sometimes even necessary by those who had previously seen it as inappropriate," the researchers reported. Violence-prone men "previously seen as marginal ... became disproportionately influential in structuring collective action."
This destructive dynamic ignited fairly easily, given that, in the researchers' words, "aggression towards others defines for many what it means to be an English fan." This combativeness has created "a stereotype of English fans as dangerous," producing an incendiary loop of mutual suspicion and hostility. In contrast, the Scottish team supporters reported no problems with locals and took no issue with the police. Their laid-back attitude was, at least in part, the result of a conscious effort to disassociate themselves from the violence-prone English fans.
As one Scottish supporter told an interviewer, "The best way to piss the English off is to behave and have a good laugh with the other fans."