LONDON — British soccer fans of the kind that precipitated Wednesday night's bloody rioting in Brussels are widely regarded as the scourge of Europe.
Why? Why do the civilized British send forth sports enthusiasts who over the years have left a trail of violence and bloodshed across the Continent?
Actually, according to sociologists who have studied the problem, soccer violence is as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
A team of researchers at Leicester University recently published a study showing that many young working-class males look on a soccer match not so much as a contest between the players on the field as an occasion to demonstrate their own masculinity. They regard an aggressive attitude toward the fans of the opposing team as proof of their manhood--and their fighting stance is admired by their friends.
The researchers found that fan aggression can be intensified by the concept of "home" and "visiting" teams. Home team fans see themselves as defending their turf against invaders, while the visiting club's supporters think of themselves as intrepid challengers in dangerous territory.
This attitude, sports observers say, becomes sharpened when British fans travel to the Continent. There they tend to drink too much, like sailors ashore in a foreign port, and they are given to tearing up towns and picking fights with local people.
A few nights in jail, according to this view, not only does not teach the violence-prone fans a lesson, it increases their importance in the eyes of their fellow supporters.
Wednesday's match in Brussels between Liverpool and Juventus of Turin was a case in point. Many of the Liverpool fans arrived in Brussels after having been drinking and are reported to have continued to drink through the day. Many were obviously drunk when they entered the stadium for the evening game.
Mixing in Terraces
The situation was aggravated by the fact that the Belgian authorities sold tickets to anyone who wished to buy, allowing British and Italian fans to mix together in the terraces, the standing-room-only spectator areas at European soccer stadiums. Tickets for the terraces are the cheapest and, in matches involving British teams, they are almost always the principal scenes of trouble.
They compare with the end zone seats at an American football game or the bleachers in a baseball park. In European soccer, they are generally reserved for the fans of one team or the other, rarely both. Occupants of the higher-priced seats are usually better behaved.
In Britain, police and stadium authorities take great care to keep the teams' fans separated--before, during and after the match. Home club supporters are often kept in the stadium until the visiting fans have boarded trains or buses for home.
Taunting the Others
In Brussels, with the Italian and British fans mixed, trouble developed quickly. Supporters of both clubs taunted the others until the Liverpool supporters rushed the Italians, driving them up against a wall that collapsed on them.
Some British observers complained that the Belgian soccer officials should have anticipated the problem, should have made sure that the fans were segregated, should have seen to it that the police were in position to prevent the attack.
And British sports specialists say that soccer violence is not restricted to Britain. There have been casualties at soccer matches in Turkey, the Soviet Union, China and, especially, in Latin America.
Some liken soccer violence in Britain to the urban teen-age gang warfare that erupts in American cities.
Rob Hughes, one of the most knowledgeable of British soccer writers, asks rhetorically: "What is wrong with the British?" And he replies: "A glib answer is that we have hooligans and strikes where others are bedeviled with terrorism and street shootouts, that football is our outlet for a violence that manifests itself worldwide. Yet we cannot, we dare not, for an instant become complacent or understate the seriousness of the problem."
'Incarnation of Violence'
John Cohen, a professor of psychology at the University of Manchester, says of the violent behavior that sometimes accompanies soccer matches, "The game itself is an incarnation of violence; the match a sort of Saturday poultice bringing a week's frustration to a head."
Other sociologists believe that the high unemployment rate, particularly among working-class young people, contributes to the frustrations that spill over into violence on the playing field. And some see it as a kind of pressure valve that has taken the place of going off to war.