Asia & Oceania Europe 

The Beautiful Game: Understanding Conflict Through the Lens of Sport History

by Luke Hally

Understanding conflict contributors in contemporary security modelling requires a broad yet interconnected understanding of variables that influence catalysts of violence. In order to develop effective means of mitigating conflict or conflict outbursts, these variables of influence should be assessed with full fruition regardless of their obscurity or seemingly marginal importance. Oftentimes overlooked contributors form invaluable tools for creating a modular and curated engagement approach within particular conflict contexts. Within this article, a case study approach of assessing violence in sports history will offer yet another unique perspective of contributing to understanding catalysts and preventative measures of violence. 

When assessing conflict through supporter and fan-based violence parameters in sports, an oftentimes archaic academic point of assessment of understanding arises. This, of course, is instinct and the subconscious human tendency and desire for violence as an involuntary mechanism for survival and continuation. This theory holds merit yet is quite rudimentary in its baseline factors of contributory assessment; there are, of course, a range of inducements at play. They include the likes of group influence of violence instigation, mass hysteria and mock battle imitation. Sociologically these factors can be explained by assessing sporting engagements as symbolic battles of competing teams representing nations or areas. These symbolic battles are, in turn, projected as justifiable means to engage in violence by certain fans due to the highly competitive nature of the sporting engagement itself.

Violent outbreaks in sports have been documented as early as 59 AD during a riot at a gladiator match in Pompeii. The fans from both Pompeii and the neighbouring settlement of Nuceria engaged in fatal clashes, resulting in multiple deaths and the closure of the local Pompeian amphitheatre. With this example from antiquity, a core catalyst undertone of violence can be analysed by assessing the historical context of the two settlements. This undertone being a dualistic element of underlying ethnic-social tensions and nationalist separatism. These two elements derived from the revolt of Pompeii during the Social War of 91-88BC, which saw the local Samnite population strive for equal rights to their Roman citizen counterparts. The revolt of Pompeii was put down by the Roman general Sulla, and lands were confiscated and granted to Nuceria, who had not revolted. A legionary settlement was also granted on the grounds of where the amphitheatre was built for their use. The amphitheatre then stood as a monument to the Roman domination over the local Samnite position and contributed along with territorial disputes towards a sentiment of hostility between the two towns. The gladiator match at the time formed the catalyst of violence of the underlying inducing factors of the conflict between Pompeii and Nuceria. By understanding the historical context, further clarity can be extrapolated to assess and understand the broader conflict through the engagement of the sporting event.

When assessing contemporary examples in sporting history, many assume that catalysts of violence and team-based hooliganism are primarily induced through alcohol consumption. Albeit a potential enabler of boisterous and violent behaviour, it does not necessarily stand as a core contributor. Taking the case study example of Indonesian contemporary football violence, we can see a lack of this variable run counterpoint to primary contributory claims. Within Indonesia, alcohol consumption at many stadiums is somewhat limited, and iced tea is usually sold instead; this is partly due to the country being primarily Muslim. The Indonesian Liga 1 is one of the world’s most violent leagues for fan-based clashes, with 74 deaths occurring since 1994. This violence mainly arises from the heavy politicisation undertones vying for influence within Indonesian football. This politicisation often involves intervention from the state to influence decision-making, with vying politicians pressing for further control and legitimisation through curating the nation’s football leagues. This state involvement offers factions of the post-Suharto South-East Asian nation the means to further project power and legitimation through the backing of various league teams. An example of this unique means of factional power projection can be found within the team Bhayangkara FC, a football club managed by the Indonesian Police that has controversially won league competitions head to head with otherwise civilian managed teams as Bali United. 

An even more stark example of this team-based violence and rivalry in Indonesia can be witnessed between two major teams, Persija Jakarta and Persib Bandung. This violent threat is so significant that players must be transported to the Jakarta home stadium in armoured personnel carriers. This example once again has contributory elements of political usurpation of football teams to generate power projection within the post-New Order Indonesian state. In the case of Persija Jakarta, the former general Sutiyoso held sway in utilising the team as a means of satiation to secure political victories as governor of Jakarta during the turbulent late 90s. Sutiyoso used his political influence to maintain a state-supported mechanism to ensure Persija Jakarta held an advantage over their competition. In doing so, they won the national title in 2001 and grew to have the largest football fanbase in Asia, a move that secured Sutiyoso a second term as governor in 2002. As a part of this political undertone and utilisation of the team for securing gains at the ballot, paramilitary-like augmentations of fanbase structures were also used in tandem, most notably, subsections of Persija’s Jakmania group. This group would often engage in orchestrated violence against rival clubs and acted as a unique hybrid of football supporting political militia. 

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had famously stated that “Sport is an important tool to promote many of the things that are dear to me – democracy, social and developmental change, social cohesion and understanding among people”. This statement is undoubtedly true within utilising conceptions of sporting engagements in conflict modelling. However, there is a dualistic component of understanding conflict through sport and, in doing so, constructing a perspective upon the potency of sports as a unifier and divider. Examples found within contemporary English football reflect this dualism accordingly. For instance, upon the signing of Mo Salah to Liverpool Football Club in 2017, instances of racial violence towards Muslims in the UK dropped significantly by 18.9 %, according to a 2019 Stanford University study from the Immigration Policy Lab. This drop holds correlative value due to the most significant decrease in racially motivated violence occurring in the Merseyside area, where Liverpool FC is based. In a post-Brexit England where domestic society is fractured at ideological ends, the benefit of victory and success on the football pitch serves to form a unifying element of mitigating fractious contributions of conflict. This, however, forms the unifying element of the duality, with the divider arising from high stakes defeat. 

This paradox is reflected in the unifying effects of English football success at the 2020 UEFA European Championship. This success on a world stage event acted as a significant contributor of unity in an otherwise fractious post-Brexit state. The dividing aspect of this duality arose upon the high stakes defeat of England during the 2021 final with Italy, in which the Italians emerged victorious through penalties. This defeat acted in a divisive manner as it catalysed examples of racial and political conflict within the state. These examples included online racial abuse of English players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, and a substantial increase in football-related violent incidents amounting to a threefold increase of 875 cases. Furtherance of political conflict arose after the Brexiter Home Secretary Priti Patel made a statement against the racial abuse of the players, to which the England player Tyrone Mings accused her policies and rhetoric of contributing towards this tension.

Understanding conflict through the unique perspective assessment of sporting history offers valuable case studies of analysing conflict contexts and contributors. Through this lens, effective modelling of mitigatory measures can be developed and implemented to prevent further conflict from arising. Through the assessment of fan violence, effective models of understanding conflict development are reflected. These undercurrents of conflict typology are often projected within the violent engagements found in sports history from archaic to contemporary times. This unique assessment lens serves as a potent tool for modelling conflict development in modern nation-states by observing the role sport plays in security sector governance.

Photo by Tembela Bohle

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