‘Social bonding’ could be behind football hooliganism

social bonding football

Study finds that football-related violence is actually an isolated behaviour related to ‘social bonding’, rather than dysfunctional behaviour outside of football.

An Oxford University study of Brazilian football fans and known hooligans found that hooliganism is linked to a desire to defend other fans.

World Cup

With the World Cup in Russia in full swing, researchers have looked at what lies behind football hooliganism. Previously it was thought that football-related violence was an expression of ‘social maladjustment’ – so linked to people who have had previous episodes of dysfunctional behaviour outside of football, for example at home, work or school.

However, this new study appears to refute that theory.

Known hooligans

The study interviewed 465 Brazilian football fans and known hooligans. 

The results suggest that most members of ‘super-fan’ groups are not particularly dysfunctional outside of football and that their behaviour at football matches is actually related to intense social cohesion and the desire to protect their group.

Focus on threat

The research could indicate that police trying to deter football hooliganism could actually be counter-productive, as it could trigger more violence as super-fans group together to protect themselves and each other.

Lead author of the study, which is published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, Dr Martha Newson said: “Our study shows that hooliganism is not a random behaviour. Members of hooligan groups are not necessarily dysfunctional people outside of the football community; violent behaviour is almost entirely focused on those regarded as a threat – usually rival fans or sometimes the police.”

Fans worldwide

The research was based on Brazilian football fans, but the authors believe it could be applicable to football fans around the world, as well as super-fans of other sports.  

Dr Newson said: “Although we focused on a group of Brazilian fans these findings could help us to better understand fan culture and non-sporting groups including religious and political extremists. 

“The psychology underlying the fighting groups we find among fans was likely a key part of human evolution. It’s essential for groups to succeed against each other for resources like food, territory and mates, and we see a legacy of this tribal psychology in modern fandom.”

Reducing hooliganism

The researchers believe that these findings could help to reduce hooliganism and other forms of group violence if efforts are made to harness the extreme pro-group sentiments associated with this behaviour in more peaceful ways.


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