Uncivilising influence

Observations on football and violence

The 2007-2008 football season has drawn to a dramatic close, with riot police repeatedly deployed to disperse hooligans. There was a difference, however. Twenty years after government initiatives sought to attract women to matches, in the hope that they would be a civilising influence on male fans, in many recent incidents women have been prominent among the troublemakers.

Violent clashes between police and Rangers supporters during the Uefa Cup final in Manchester last month resulted in the arrest of two women for disorderly conduct. A week later, riots erupted in Fulham Broadway, south-west London, as Chelsea fans spilled out of pubs after their team's defeat in the Champion's League final in Moscow. Of 200 or so rioters, an estimated 50 were women.

One who gave her name as Christy justified her participation: "We weren't looking for a fight, but when the police started to get a bit rough, everyone started throwing whatever we could get our hands on. I know just as much [about football] as the blokes, all the rules and stuff. I've been known to get in a scuffle or two. My boyfriend's usually the one holding me back." Her claims of expertise are backed up by a 2005 survey which revealed that female supporters' understanding of the offside law is superior to men's.

Yet in spite of this gender development, attitudes to female football supporters remain strikingly sexist. One man who witnessed women throwing bottles and punches at Fulham Broadway said female fans only wanted "to watch Beckham's legs and marry Wayne Rooney". A policeman regularly deployed at football grounds, who conceded that women were increasingly engaging in disorderly behaviour, rejected the idea that rowdy female fans could be serious about the sport. "The girls are just trying to impress the boys, aren't they?" he said. "They've had one too many Smirnoff Ices."

In terms of drinking, he has a point. Women comprise up to one in five spectators at Premiership matches, but they often constitute half of those watching in pubs and bars. Grounds can ban alcohol at matches where violence is anticipated, whereas licensed venues show sports expressly to sell more drinks, and more women are rivalling men in consumption. Crime statistics from 2006 show that 28 per cent of those cautioned for drunkenness were women, up from 8 per cent in 1989.

John Williams, director of the Centre for the Sociology of Sport at Leicester University, sees the recent events as "spontaneous drink-related expressive hooliganism" born of disappointment, rather than a return to the premeditated violence that used to plague football in Britain. Female aggression, he says, is a way of "legitimating their involvement on the night as 'loyal' fans or 'game' spouses or partners".

This compulsion for women to demonstrate their passion for football through thuggery is not surprising given the scepticism with which many men treat their interest in the sport. While male chauvinism is likely to preclude women from playing a hardcore role in organised hooliganism around football grounds, it cannot prevent women from conducting themselves in the gender-neutral territory of the pub as aggressively as their male counterparts. It's equality of sorts.