Weird History

Soccer Hooligans Are The UK's Version Of Biker Clubs, But They're Even Wilder  

Melissa Sartore
9.3k views 16 items

Since the earliest days of football supporter culture, aggression and soccer have gone hand in hand. Rooted in cultural rivalries, geographic boundaries, and social class, your average soccer match - football to most of the world - sometimes results in brawls, tumults, and even loss of life.

English hooligans represent the best and the worse of football supporter culture, gaining such an extreme reputation that people called hooliganism the "British disease" for much of the late 20th century. It spread, with fights breaking out in soccer stadiums around the world, but soccer hoolies in England stand alone among the sport's most extreme fans. They boast an identity all their own - the product of a long history and a host of contributing factors.

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Photo:  Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Soccer Aggression Emerged As A Problem As Early As The 14th Century

Medieval soccer in England - the foundation for today's games (excluding much older and similar games played around the world) - existed in a much different form than the modern version. In "mob football," players used their hands and feet to move the ball, a pig's bladder, with spectators joining in on the contest.

Due to the unruly and unpredictable nature of the sport, and because it drove business away from merchants and their markets, London Mayor Nicholas de Farndon issued a proclamation against soccer in 1314:

And whereas there is a great uproar in the City through certain tumults arising from the striking of great footballs in the field of the public - from which many [perils] perchance may arise - which may God forbid - we do command and do forbid, on the King's behalf, upon [misery] of [confinement], that such games shall not be practiced henceforth within this city.

The mayor boasted the power of King Edward II behind him, and several decades later, King Edward III further limited the game. People viewed soccer as a game associated with the common man, and King Edward III feared people were neglecting archery in its stead.

Kings of France and Scotland also banned the sport during the 14th and 15th centuries. Many viewed soccer as a menace to public order as well as a frivolity among the masses, but their efforts did little to stop people from playing.

Playing Soccer Was Against the Law And A Sin

Because soccer lacked any explicit rules, players and spectators often grew upset when they felt their team was wronged on the pitch. On one occasion in Scotland in 1601, a brawl on the field ended with the passing of two brothers after participants drew pistols.

A few years later, charges of "drinking, playing... futte-ball, [dancing], and passing fra paroche to paroche" were filed against a group of young participants. Some individuals playing soccer on the Sabbath even faced charges of "scandalous behavior in convening themselves upon the Lord's day to a public footballing."

The aggression associated with soccer prompted both political and religious objections, but through the 17th and 18th centuries, the sport saw an ebb and flow of royal support. Attempts to stop the harshness continued, though, with cities enacting laws to keep the mayhem at bay. In Scotland, for example:

[It had an] association with border raids and forays and with [aggression] generally. Often a football match was the prelude to [an incursion] across the Border, for the same hot-headed young men were game for both, and the English authorities [learned] to keep their eyes on the footballers.

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Photo: Olivier Perrin (1761-1832)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Game Temporarily Quieted Down During The 19th Century

By the 19th century, soccer was almost synonymous with aggression. To control the sport and the disruptions it caused, public education got involved. Soccer transitioned from its rural roots to a game associated with legitimate rules and the industrialization of the world, making its shift to institutions like schools logical.

In 1848, Cambridge University changed the rules of soccer by eliminating the use of hands. In 1863, soccer became formally separated from rugby with the establishment of the Football Association of England, the first regulating body of the sport. The Football Association used Cambridge University's rules, and less than a decade later, both England and Scotland had national teams. The Scottish Football Association formed in 1873, with the Scottish Football League taking shape in 1890.

The legitimization and standardization of soccer briefly quelled the disorder, and as the game was exported to Europe, soccer was seen as a gentlemanly, respectable game.

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Pitch Invasions And Postgame Brawls Erupted During The Late 19th Century

Pitch takeovers occurred during soccer matches for various reasons. During the late 19th century in Glasgow, men went onto the pitch during a women's game, presumably in some sort of gender-role protest, but fan action against players could also be much more extreme.

In 1885, after a 5-0 win for Preston North End over Aston Villa, spectators rebelled and took over the pitch, punching fans and players alike and leaving one Preston player unconscious. The next year, Preston fans rushed a group of Queen's Park fans at the railway station near the stadium in the first recorded instance of hooligan aggression outside the soccer pitch.

In 1905, several Preston fans faced charges of hooliganism for another incident against Blackburn Rovers fans. The plaintiffs included a 70-year-old woman described as "[inebriated] and disorderly."