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Violence and Racism in Football

Politics and Cultural Conflict in British Society, 1968-1998


Brett Bebber


Perspectives in Economic and Social History, vol. 16

London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012, 288p. ISBN-13: 9781848922661

Hardcover. xi+288 p. ISBN 978-1848932661. £60.00


Reviewed by Christian Civardi

Université de Strasbourg



Countless tomes have been written on football violence. Unlike most of these, which, according to Brett Bebber, treat football as a mere symptom of broader cultural and social processes, this book examines British football as an arena for the reproduction and performance of racial and class tensions, a contested cultural site where several social groups – including Labour, Conservative and nationalist politicians, police authorities and grassroots anti-racist movements – sought to manipulate the British social landscape through the sport. In the final three decades of the 20th century, discourses on violence and racism developed around British football which contributed to ongoing debates about ‘Britishness’, masculinity and propriety, racism and anti-racism. Politicians and sectors of the public capitalized on the opportunities violence and racism offered, imbuing football with new responsibilities to inculcate socially constructed British values by advocating normative sets of behaviour that reflected ideas of Britishness based on values of masculine decency, respect and discipline. In other words: Britishness vs. brutishness.

To make this point, the author approaches the relevant historical actors – politicians, clubs, players (particularly black ones) and supporters – as active agents shaping cultural discourses. Interestingly, he argues that the major agent – not to say the arch-schemer – is the State. The first part of this study analyses how the State constructed normative discourses of class and gender which labelled working-class football spectators as deviant, brutish, belligerent and unmanly, and thus legitimated violent actions against them throughout the 1970s and 1980s. What these violent actions consisted in is elaborated upon in the second part: national police policies, architectural innovations and sentencing procedures coordinated by both Labour and Conservative governments eager to address social anxieties about law and order. In these first two parts, the author explores the ways in which the State aimed to sanitise the sport as an activity representative of the purported genteel character of the nation itself.

The two chapters in part I provide the background. Chapter 1 explores the contexts and historical transitions that made an increase in football violence possible. In assessing both police reports and oral histories, Bebber explores it from several different perspectives. If the local approach is often convincing, the global view is less so. “Defeats in sport throughout the 1950s mirrored Britain’s international regression… England’s victory in 1966 provided a symbolic but tangible sense of restoration of British superiority in both the sporting world and national politics” [20]. However, British athletes were highly successful in track and field, rugby, mountaineering, motor racing throughout the 1950s; and the World Cup victory of 1966 took place a mere sixteenth months before the devaluation of sterling. Chapter 2 critically explores the moral panics constructed around football violence, exposing the leading role played by politicians and police in demonising those who perpetrated it. (The author refuses to use the term ‘hooligan’ to avoid its negative connotations.) According to him, Government documents reveal how national values of bourgeois propriety and classed paternalism imbued discourses about football violence, in which young working-class men were framed as criminal and animalistic.

Part II analyses the state’s response to football violence. Each chapter looks at one of the three component elements of the total policy of containment employed by politicians, police and football authorities to eradicate the problem. Using government files, Chapter 3 shows how successive governments endeavoured to institute disciplined and conditioned forms of football consumption through direct manipulation of the architectural environment. Chapter 4 looks at how football provided a platform for both Labour and Conservative ministers to extend violent and confrontational police tactics which aimed to demonstrate their commitment to law and order. Now subject to ever-increasing surveillance in highly policed environments, spectators faced stringent punitive measures when apprehended. Chapter 5 analyses how government officials pressured magistrates’ courts to consider new severe sentencing alternatives. One may question the author’s basic assumption that the State had a hidden agenda, but these chapters, mostly based on government papers and court reports, make for stimulating reading.

In Part III, the focus shifts to the emergence of racisms and anti-racist movements in football, starting in the late 1970s with the influx of successful black players. From the mid-80s onward football became a central cultural and institutional site where ideas about racism and society could be enacted and debated. It became an educative resource for anti-racist groups and the CRE, and at the same time proved a fertile arena for neo-fascist recruiters. The approach here is decidedly post-colonial, centred on the cultural production of ‘Britishness’ and belonging through the colony/metropole relationship. Here again, one may not be convinced by the author’s premise that “while working-class violence endangered British national mythologies of peaceful class interaction and successful social welfare, racisms in football challenged prevalent ideas of multi-ethnic harmony and cultural integration” [10], but he does have a point when he notes that “football anti-racism became another form of institutionalised public order against customary expressions of social discontent”.

Chapter 6 examines how racial abuse and violence were stimulated by fascist nationalist parties, with particular studies of paper-selling and recruiting at local stadiums, and attempts to evaluate the impact and legacy of fascist and anti-fascist groups on racisms and anti-racist social movements in football. Chapter 7 looks at racism and anti-racism outside of fascist and nationalist influences and focuses on the government’s and the fans’ reactions, noting the connection with previous efforts to sanitise football in the 1970s. The anti-racist fans used the threat of violence to address racism in an effort to purge football of its latest moral evil, thereby perpetuating environments which discouraged women’s involvement. National anti-racist movements also chose football to deploy their messages. But both sets of actors oversimplified the structures and discourses of racism and anti-racism, providing a political success story that obfuscated indirect and inadvertent racisms. (Absolutely none of the actors in Bebber’s book, however well-meaning, ever seems to have got it right.)

Finally, Chapter 8 analyses the multiple forms of racism against black players. The development of ‘whiteness’ as the accepted form of masculine behaviour within football imposed multiple normative expectations on black footballers. Analysing published interviews with black players reveal how they coped with pressures of propriety, loyalty and tempered aggression within the football environment. Anti-racist organisations advocated players as icons of gentility and acceptable anti-racist conduct. Such prescribed forms of behaviour recalled bourgeois standards of propriety, discipline and Britishness which, according to Bebber, “precluded free modes of expression for black players”. Here, this reviewer must confess himself utterly puzzled by this statement, whose implications he dreads to fathom when he reads further down that “categorising black footballers as role models controlled their behaviours, limited unwanted outbursts and sanitised their conduct on and off the field… Black players were subtly encouraged to adopt national sporting values, which often reflected the white working-class constituencies of local clubs…” [225]. This blatantly essentialist approach, which crops up rather unexpectedly in a book where “essentialised Britishness” is held up time and again to ridicule, is linked to the author’s indiscriminate use of the concept of ‘whiteness’, which he imports straight from the USA without making the proper adjustments for the British scene. ‘British’, by the way, as announced in the book’s title, not merely ‘English’. It is common knowledge that there is no such thing as “the British national football team” mentioned twice on p. 61. One of the five books listed in the bibliographical footnote on ‘whiteness’ (all of them focusing on the USA) is N. Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White. Well, no; they sure didn’t in Scottish football, where sectarianism has been rife for over a century (Glasgow Celtic/Rangers, Edinburgh Hibs/Hearts and all that). A look at this long-lasting plague would have enabled the author to justify and flesh out his use both of ‘British’ and of the intriguing plural ‘racisms’.

These few flaws notwithstanding, Brett Bebber has written a very useful book. He has managed to produce both a state-of-the-art synthesis of research on football violence and to offer new insight on the question thanks to his painstaking scrutiny of various, often well-hidden primary resources. Home Office and Department of the Environment documents (subject to a thirty-year embargo), including a hand-drawn image found tucked within the DOE files which he attributes to Denis Howell and from which he infers that the Labour Sports Minister “envisioned sports grounds as war zones”; fanzines, newspaper and magazine articles (a couple of very telling cartoons are reproduced); material (pins and logos) and publications from racist groups and anti-racist campaigns such as Kick it Out! and Football Unites, Racism Divides. He perceptively notes that “Football’s anti-racism campaigns became open public arenas where many could discuss racism and anti-racism without coded language”, and one has to agree with his conclusion that the State indiscriminately tampered with “Britain’s established working-class recreation, even as working-class men lost control over this site of leisure”. All told, this book fulfils what it ambitiously set out to do in its introduction: “to read social relationships back into discussions of discourse and imagine a wider field of practical and discursive tensions in football culture, uniting structural and discursive analysis through the practices of social and cultural history”.


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