Euro 2016: Exploring the language of football hooliganism in reports after Marseille clashes

Euro 2016 had barely begun before the first punch was thrown. Whether you deplore or defend the actions in Marseille, Laura Jones looks at the language used in analysis of both sides of the fight.


It’s fascinating how media outlets report on incidents like the trouble in Marseille. Is ‘trouble’ even the right word? Should it be ‘riots’, ‘attacks’ or ‘hooliganism’?

Language is guided by the writer’s nationality, experience and biases and also edited with the newspaper or broadcasters’ political allegiance or agenda in mind. What we write, most of the time, is influenced by who we are. The discourse of football reporting could be a dissertation on its own.

Let’s start with how supporters are defined. ‘Fan’ has always felt a bit non-committal in its definition, like football was enjoyable to the person but they could take it or leave it. In another writer’s head ‘fan’ is more than sufficient to describe an avid football goer.

‘Supporter’ on the other hand, to me, means you actively follow football and support a particular team. Support has an element of involvement and conviction about it. I’m a supporter of the Labour Party but I’m not exactly a fan at the moment. Language and how you use it is important.

Where does that leave ‘hooligan’? A hooligan is a supporter who has the intention to fight but who is labelled a ‘hooligan’ seems to derive from your own prejudices, whether it’s intentional or not.

BBC sports journalist Dan Roan reported from the Stade Vélodrome, prior to the England v Russia match, about the pre-match running battles between fans/supporters. (Do any other kind of group other than hooligans have running battles?)

Dan Roan reported live that, “It’s understood in some instances it’s been quite well-organised gangs of Russian hooligans taking on English supporters.”

The language used inferred that the Russians were not supporters or fans just the instigators of the fighting but the English were there to support their team and passive in the violence. One group supports, one group fights.

Although there is truth in what Roan said about the Russian’s being organised and more disturbingly indiscriminate about their attacks, at this point in the evening it wasn’t clear that the English supporters weren’t also involved hence the questionable use of labels.

Use of the word ‘hooligan’ has become more sporadic over the years mainly because there are fewer instances of it but also because it’s harder to attach the label. Because of 24-hour news and citizen journalism showing incidents happening on both sides, it’s more difficult for media outlets to paint one side as bad and the other as good. As the footage from the ‘Battle of Marseille II’ has shown (thanks for the hyperbole Daily Mirror), it’s difficult to know who started what. There is almost certainly blame on all sides, Russian, English, French and the police. Labelling one and not the other becomes a big issue.

If you’re a fan/supporter who defends themselves does this mean you’re a hooligan? Depends who is writing or broadcasting I suppose.

The Daily Telegraph reports the Russian supporters as ‘Ultras’. The English fans are dismissed as “extremely drunk men” and mentions of the England players wives and girlfriends soften the image of our supporters in that we’re just a bunch incapacitated men and feeble women.

The Guardian’s coverage changes over 24 hours. On Saturday morning the ‘England fans’ are “drinking heavily” and distinctly anti-Europe in their chanting. The English ‘fans’ are the focus of the trouble but not described as ‘hooligans.’

As the violence increases the England supporters become victims and the Russians are demoted to ‘hooligans’ with just a few taps of keyboard.

It’s interesting that Russia Today and French newspapers Le Monde and L’Equipe rarely used the word ‘hooligans’ in their reports over the weekend. However, as expected, quotes from Russian supporters blaming us and French police blaming a of “majority” England fans, show that nationality and past experience really does play a part when you’re writing about football violence.

One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Same goes for football fans and hooligans.

Read more from Laura here
Follow Laura at @YICETOR

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