Football supporters and violence in the british and french Press

Numéro 3 | Football, violence et sécurité

pp. 24-32

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David Ranc



Phenomena of violence surrounding football games are not new. Early outbreaks date from the 19th century, and short or long periods of quiet have alternated with more disorderly times (Dunning, Murphy, John Williams, 1998, passim). Violence involving football supporters almost disappeared in the interwar period but has increased since the 1960s. During the 1985 European Cup final at the Heysel Stadium, 39 spectators (mostly Italian supporters of Juventus) died, crushed between Liverpool fans who invaded their stand and a concrete wall which collapsed. It is no exaggeration to say that, overnight, football-related violence became a media phenomenon as much as a social phenomenon: images of the tragedy in the stadium were shown live on television across Europe and the scale of the disaster prompted a flurry of articles in the Press across the continent, not least of all, in the British Isles, where The Times, for example, took a very strong stance against so-called football « hooligans » (30 May 1985). Soon afterwards, « hooliganism » became a staple of the Press, in Britain, Ireland and on the European mainland too. How does the Press deal with football-related phenomena of violence today, 25 years after the event? A selection of the main newspapers from France (Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, L'Équipe, Le Parisien), England (The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Sun, The Daily Mirror) and Scotland (The Scotsman, The Glasgow Herald, The Daily Record) were studied from 1995 onwards in order to provide an answer to this question. This study has been done mostly in connection with local clubs, respectively PSG, Arsenal, and the Glaswegian « Old Firm » of Celtic and Rangers.

It appears rather clearly that across the three « nations » (to use the word in the sense it takes within sport), newspapers are confronted with very similar quandaries: mentioning violence is seen as risking to increase the likelihood of new outbreaks of violence, but articles on rivalries between football supporters of given clubs are also acknowledged as a sure way to increase the sales of the newspaper. Different types of press outlets therefore adopt different attitudes. This is all the clearer in the case of Scotland and France. In the latter, it is also possible to identify precise mechanisms through which the Press can play a role in growing discontent among the fans. The case of Arsenal also shows how newspapers may insidiously contribute to a climate conducive to violence.

The Press between « hyping up » and « playing down » troubles

The clearest overall tendency is that the Press hesitates between different ways of dealing with violence among fans – and most importantly: the rivalries at the root of much violence. These hesitations are probably best illustrated by the case of the two rival Glaswegian teams of Rangers and Celtic. Their opposition has been extensively studied notably by Jo Bradley (1995) and Bill Murray (1984, 1988, 1998). To put it simply: Celtic is the club of Glasgow's catholic community (mostly of Irish descent); Rangers is the club of the Protestant community. The sectarian rivalry between fans of the two clubs has remained fierce all throughout the twentieth century, occasionally including physical violence, even leading in some cases to deaths (the last one, 16 year old Mark Scott, in 1995, see The Herald, 15 March 1996).

Reporting on rivalries

Since 1975, sectarianism has established itself as a staple of the Scottish Press at large. Reports denouncing the matter abound, they usually give football a dominating place (e.g. The Glasgow Herald, 5 August 1989; The Herald, 22 March 1993; Daily Record, 16 December 1996). Conversely, sports journalists seem more reluctant to do the same. The Herald sports pages, for example only mentioned troubles in two cases, the international games against Poland (19 Many 1990) and against Portugal (14 October 1992). In their regular post match reports, journalists even seldom mention sectarian singing or abuse. According to Laurence MacIntyre (responsible for safety at Rangers Football Club, interviewed 12 June 2001): « Sports journalists are trying to stay away from that », if only because they do not want to « get abuse in the stadia », and do not want to smash « their links with the football clubs ». French journalists behave in a very similar manner when reporting on PSG. PSG supporters are only talked about in three occasions: when some show their discontent with the club's management, become violent or when PSG meet their arch nemesis Olympique de Marseille (OM). JérômeTouboul from L'Équipe indeed stated (interview, 29 December 2003) that his newspaper is loath to report on supporters, in order to avoid confrontations.

« Hyping up » the rivalry

The sport section holds an important place in the broadsheets and tabloids in Scotland, and the specialised Press in France (local and sports newspaper Le Parisienand L'Équipe). Yet, the same news is treated very differently. Firstly, the Scottish tabloids focus on football and on the Old Firm much more than the broadsheets: between 22 April and 2 May 2001, articles related to the Old Firm made it to the front page of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail on six occasions, and to the back page every day. Football in contrast very seldom makes it to the front page of the broadsheets. The treatment of the same event in TheSun or the Daily Record is also comparatively more substantial. A transfer rumour would command whole articles and sequels in the following days. A similar division between tabloids and broadsheets appears clearly in England.

Secondly, tabloids (in Scotland and England) very regularly mention rivalries, a contentious issue that the broadsheets avoid. The Record usually quotes and emphasises the verbal attacks of Rangers players' on Celtic players or fans and vice versa, leading to a real war of words. Polemics can extend beyond the football sphere. In February 2001, the Irish Prime Minister postponed a trip to Scotland, planned at a time when two confrontations between Rangers and Celtic had been scheduled. The proposed trip had caused a storm in the newspapers. Interviewees Laurence MacIntyre and Carol Patton (head of security and PR officer at Rangers) and Daryl Broadfoot (football journalists at The Herald, 14 June 2001) have all emphasised that in this instance tabloids are just following an established practice or « writing what sells ».

In France, the specialist newspapers (L'Équipe, Le Parisien) did not seem to act any differently at the turn of the 1990s. According to journalists Jean François Pérès, Daniel Riolo and David Aiello (2003) the rivalry between PSG and OM was indeed entirely fabricated by the media in that period. They have shown that Canal+ and Bernard Tapie, respectively owners of PSG and OM, staged the rivalry in the media, in order to increase the subscription to the clubs, and to the encrypted channel. The common opinion among Marseilles supporters indeed seems to be that the rivalry is largely fed by the press, an idea normally shared by PSG supporters (Pérès et al, op. cit., 2003, 207 208).

« Playing down » the rivalry

In France, the generalist papers and in Scotland (arguably the UK), the broadsheets are on the contrary totally exempt from such an attitude. The Scottish broadsheets even reveal a willingness to play down the antagonism – and to confine it strictly to football. This has appeared most clearly in the case of the signing of Maurice Johnston, first Catholic at Rangers. In The Herald article on the subject (11 July 2009), the religion of Maurice Johnston only appears in reported speech from a supporter, and the spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland seems to welcome the signing as instrumental in bringing down bigotry, whereas comparison with other articles shows he actually described it as merely a financial deal. After Maurice Johnston scored his first goal ¬in an Old Firm derby, The Herald as well as The Scotsman (5 November 1989) ceased to present him as either a Catholic or a former Celt. The Scotsman even asserted that after this day, he was seen as a true Rangers by supporters. Yet, there are testimonies that a year later, some supporters would still mourn the « death » of the « True Spirit of Rangers » (Walsh, 1995, last chapter). The sectarian aspect of the troubles that took place in Celtic Park on 1 January 1994 were considerably downplayed by both The Herald and The Scotsman. Both newspapers put forth the belief that the violence was the result of poor sporting results.

The French Press: a case of schizophrenia?

These opposite attitudes of « hyping up » and « playing down » the rivalry also appear in France. Yet, the role of the press is more complex. Truly, specialist newspapers try to cash in on the rivalry, devoting much coverage to it. Simultaneously, the same newspapers are trying to minimise the opposition between supporters. Newspapers have frequently underlined the weakening of the rivalry (L'Équipe did so as early as 11 April 1995), for example through the lack of sporting stakes when the teams ranked averagely in the League. Dailies also regularly insist on the security measures taken to avoid confrontations. But even this is not without ambiguities. The very same 1995 issue of L'Équipe insisted on security measures and recalled the relatively recent troubles as well as the history of the opposition. Newspapers exhibit the same « schizophrenia » as in Glasgow but for two facts. The divide is between generalist and specialised newspapers L'Équipeand Le Parisieninstead of broadsheets and tabloids. Each specialist newspaper also exhibits this schizophrenia.

The Press and violence: a complex relationship

Case studies point more precisely to complex interactions. Reporting on PSG and violence among supporters, newspapers have become part of a system. British papers (and media in general) on the other hand, have changed the ways in which violent incidents happen while simultaneously creating a climate of violence (symbolic or otherwise).

PSG, its supporters and the Press

Violence has been a feature in the behaviour of some PSG supporters since the 1980s. The relative uniqueness of this violence in the French context has made it a very newsworthy item. After 1993, violence appeared in a relatively limited number of occasions but never on the same scale. Following fights at Auxerre in 2004 between two factions of Parisian supporters (the Tigris Mystics from Auteuil and independent supporters from Boulogne) violence became an important phenomenon at PSG again and commanded extensive press coverage. This eruption of violence culminated in the tragic events (still sub judice) of November 2006, when a football supporter was killed by a policeman on the outside of the stadium.

In the French Press, reports on violence outnumber reports on other issues related to supporters. For example, 2001 incidents between PSG &Galatasaray supporters led to no less than five articles a week in Libération(14, 15, 19, 21 & 22 March 2001), several articles over a six months period in Le Monde (e.g. 15 March & 28 December 2001), and innumerable articles in Le Parisienand L'Équipe. Those reports emphasise the most aggressive behaviour exhibited by some PSG supporters (between 50 and 300 people in the stadium according to a French intelligence agency, now disbanded, the RenseignementsGénéraux (Le Monde, 25 January 2003. Le Figaro.24 November 2006) to the detriment of the majority of supporters. The number, prominence and questionable accuracy of Press reports on such outbreaks of violence have sparked considerable resentment from a majority of supporters.

Relations between the newspapers and the club have also been distinctively tense, one might even say « brutal » at times. This results from the disproportionate coverage and the systematic disparagement of PSG in the press (Ranc, 2007, 328). On a number of occasions, the club has, indeed, stopped communicating with the press (in 1995, 1996, 1988, 2001). Capitalising on the well known ill feelings of supporters for the press, club officials have often blamed newspapers for some of the team's bad results, and deflect (potentially violent) resent from the supporters. For instance, Luis Fernandez famously accused Le Parisien of trying to destabilise the club in its articles, and he called on it to stop for: « One also ought to think about the supporters who read these articles, and who are fed up too' (Le Parisien, 22 octobre 2002). In October 2004, VahidHalilhodzic also decided that only some journalists, seen by the supporters as being « pro PSG », were allowed to attend training sessions (Le Monde, 14 October 2004). L'Équipe, whose journalist, JérômeTouboul, had been banned from PSG training grounds, said on this occasion: « Paris is mistaken when it tries to blame its bad results on the press » (L'Équipe, 5 October 2004). These strategies have had poor results, though. The support Luis Fernandez may have gathered was short lived. He was the target of verbal attacks from all supporters groups but one, during the game on Sunday 3 March 2003 (Le Parisien, 4 March 2003). VahidHalilhodzic's attempt was unsuccessful too as he kept on receiving verbal abuse from PSG supporters at games and training sessions. Indeed, the Press does not simply report on violence. The reports may contribute to the creation, development or furtherance of violence. Equally, in a tense context the Press can be instrumented by club managers, to deflect resent and violence.

The English Press: unreported violence

Violence happening within a stadium, in the presence of journalists, or even broadcast live on television is decidedly conspicuous. Law enforcement agencies have developed efficient ways of controlling crowds and minimising eye-catching violence in highly mediatised contexts. Thus, for a number of years, the British Press has often claimed that violence in football has disappeared in the English Premier League. A few months of participating observation with Arsenal football supporters tend to suggest this is not true. Anyone walking near Highbury or the Emirates Stadium on match day will notice a huge police presence. The crowds are actually guided out of the stadium, to metro and train stations, on routes which they cannot but follow. Each stretch of this route is monitored by a record presence of « CCTV » (surveillance cameras). Policemen equipped with camcorders also follow the supporters and spectators in the trains all the way into the centre of London (typically Piccadilly Circus). Recordings are used to identify eventual troublemakers.

Any spectator going casually to a football game will therefore be under the impression that very little to no trouble can happen and that football-related violence is a thing of the past. British journalists going to football games, almost exclusively sports journalists, are very content with this vision. However, reality is different. Firstly, some crowds are calmer than others. Arsenal supporters are not overall violent, if anything they are known for being very quiet. An Arsenal supporter going to a Chelsea game may be unlikely to be physically assaulted. S/he may however be subject to other restrained forms of violence which seem to be deemed « acceptable » – among others: personal, direct, verbal abuse extending beyond supporters' chants; and being « involuntarily » hit by the shoulders of many Chelsea supporters in the crowd. Secondly, fights between rival « firms » of violent supporters happen on the margins of the match, a few hundred meters (sometimes a few kilometres) away from the stadium, in places where the regular crowd, police, journalists and local residents are highly unlikely to notice them. Violence has not disappeared, it has simply scaled down and shied away from television, police cameras and the scrutiny of journalists.

Symbolic violence: xenophobia in the English Press

The presence of foreign players

The attitude of British sports journalists is ambiguous, though. Arguably, they do create a violent climate by insidiously propagating xenophobia. No newspaper has adopted an overtly xenophobic agenda but the number of foreign players in the English Premier League has given rise to a quantity of articles who promote « rationalised » and « casual » xenophobia. All quarters of the Press have indeed discussed at lengths the pros and cons of the foreign presence in English football, sometimes within the remit of an article and not always coherently. This lack of consistency of the UK Press (mostly of the tabloids) is not a surprise. Stephen Wagg indeed claims that in their sports section, tabloids attach no value to consistency. Incoherence is even a recurring feature, since tabloids are guided by sensationalism only. They are bound to adopt the point of view more likely to raise sales at one given moment, even if it directly contradicts the point of view previously adopted (Wagg, 1991, xi-xii).

Over the years since the 1995 Bosman ruling which liberalised the market for European players in the EU, the foreign presence in the Premiership has lost some of its novelty value, and it is not given the regular sensationalistic treatment it used to (See for example: The Independent, 10 February 1996 and 23 November 1996. The Guardian, 12 July 1996. The Times, 11 August 1996. The Times, 5 March 1998. The Evening Standard, 11 May 2000. The Daily Telegraph, 6 August 1996. The Mail on Sunday, 3 August 1997). No newspaper runs a table of teams with the most foreigners like The Independent used to during season 2000-2001.

However, the question is still raised when new developments (regularly) make it newsworthy again and through comments from actors of the game (managers, players, executives). This was nowhere more evident than when Arsène Wenger used an all foreign squad on 14 February 2005. Then, the strongest attack on his policy came in the headline « It's a disgrace » from The Daily Mail (16 February 2005).

Rationalised and casual xenophobia

In spite of all their attempts to present a balanced view (or of their incoherence), the broadsheets and tabloids use the same two arguments (the lack of opportunities for young players and the need to play with English players to succeed) against the foreign presence in English football. These arguments are spurious. According to the Director of Development at the Football Association, Sir Trevor Brooking, young English players are lacking in technical quality compared to their foreign counterparts (The Sun and The Daily Mail, 15 March 2006). Arsenal also managed to win the League unbeaten in 2004 and to reach the final of the Champion's League in 2006 with a team full of foreigners. Using these arguments thus reveal attempts to justify baseless xenophobic prejudices through rational reconstructions. This phenomenon can be called « rationalised » xenophobia.

The Englishness of the game is actually a source of countless clichés bearing witness of a rampant, if not omnipresent, « casual » xenophobia in all quarters of the press. There is the recurring assumption that foreign footballers may not be able to withstand the physicality (a euphemism for violence) of the English game and are « a bunch of showboaters, who more often than not lack the guts for a proper scrap » (The Evening Standard, 17 February 2006). Foreigners are also routinely downplayed as « mercenaries », or collectively as a « foreign legion » (e.g. The Daily Telegraph, 13 September 1996. The Sun, 14 August 2004. The Observer, 8 January 2006). The implication is that those players' move to England was purely motivated by greed, and that they won't stay.

Academic research on the matter has provided evidence that foreign players come to England for a variety of reasons, such as furthering their career or sampling a new football culture. Money is not the sole concern (Magee, Sugden, 2002, passim; Maguire, 2004, passim). Also, some players like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp or KoloTouré have stayed at Arsenal for a long time and proved their attachment to their club. Furthermore, foreign players are blamed for bringing vice and cheating in a hitherto virtuous game. Diving is claimed to be a « foreign disease » (The Sun, 16 September 2003). This is in direct contradiction to the renewed statements from UEFA that diving does not happen outside Britain (The Times, 15 February 2006). More importantly, there is the (impossible to prove) accusation that foreigners are fundamentally altering the game, destroying it: that they are « losing the soul of English football » in the words of then West Ham manager, Alan Pardew (The Independent, 14 March 2006).


It is therefore incoherence which best summarises the attitude of the Press towards episodes of football-related violence. Newspapers may simultaneously hype up and play down rivalries. Violence may go unreported while an insidiously racist climate conducive to violence is brought about by the same newspapers which on the other hand, are the first to lambast supporters for any overt display of racism. Differences have appeared, though. In Scotland and England, tabloids are more likely than broadsheets to capitalise on violence in order to sell papers. In France, the divide is between specialists and generalist newspapers. The latter are barely reporting on sport, thus unlikely to stir any trouble. The French Press in general also appears to be less ferocious than its British counterparts. This complexity is linked to the difficult position of the Press, which does not only report on violence but is an actor in the construction and diffusion of violence.


The main sources for this article have been a study of the Press 1995 to present (Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, L'Équipe, Le Parisien, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Sun, The Daily Mirror, The Scotsman, The Glasgow Herald, The Daily Record) and extensive interviews with 43 suporters of PSG, 38 of Arsenal, the following journalists: Daryl Broadfoot, The Herald, 14 June 2001; Blaise de Chabalier, Le Figaro, 21 December 2003; David Revaultd'Allonnes, Libération, 28 December 2003; JérômeTouboul, L'Équipe, 29 December 2003; Sam Wallace, The Independent, 26 November 2006 (by phone); Matt Denver, The Independent, 5 December 2006 (by phone); Matt Scott, The Guardian, 12 December 2006; John Brodkin, The Guardian, 12 December 2006 (by phone). The club officials and politicians who have been interviewed are: Carol Patton (press officer) and Laurence McIntyre (security chief) from Rangers, 12 June 2001; Stéphane Le Floch (Paris councillor), 9 September 2003; Philippe Séguin, 25 September 2003; Michael O'Brien (club secretary) and Jill Smith (supporters' liaison officer) from Arsenal, 9 November 2006.