Media Representations of Football Fans
Carrie Dunn (2014) argues that in “most forms of popular culture, the ‘fan’ is invariably assumed to be female. Yet in football the opposite is true. The football ground is assumed to be a male domain, and the football fan is assumed to be male, with team allegiance frequently passed on from father to son.” As we have seen earlier, in fandom studies the fan is interchangeably coded as male or female, and Sandvoss (2005, p. 16) states: “Curiously, fandom has been identified as both a distinctly masculine and a distinctly feminine space.” It is, however, difficult to argue against Dunn’s statement, as football fandom is largely a male pursuit.
In American fandom studies, it is assumed that sport fans are regarded more highly than media and music fans by opinion makers and commen?tators in the media (see, e.g., Jenkins 2007). In Europe, however, football fandom was for a long time closely associated with hooliganism, and no more so than in England. This has its explanations, and as we shall see below much of the aversion towards football fans stem from the British class system, where working-class activities have generally been looked down upon by established society.
Fans add colour and flair to sport events, and can raise the profile of the athletes, teams or countries they support. What would the Olympic Games be without spectators? In the context of the global Olympic Games, as the spectacle of spectacles, fans are increasingly viewed as affluent cultural tourists. Fans not only raise the profile of those whom they support, they are also a big part of the “branding” of teams and countries. Take the World Cup in football, for example. The hubris of the Scotland team of 1978 when their manager, Ally MacLeod, exclaimed that they were going to win the World Cup (McColl 2006) was mitigated by their Tartan Army—the Scottish travelling supporters who were gaining an international reputation as easy-going and friendly. A decade and a half later, the Scotland fans overshadowed the team they supported to such an extent that the fans won the Fair Play Award at the 1992 Euros (Finn and Giulianotti 1998).
Another well-known group of fans are Denmark’s Roligans, or as they are known in English: “Cooligans” (rolig in Danish means calm, thereof the term cooligan). They came to the attention of a global audience during the European Championship in France in 1984, when around 30,000 Danish fans travelled to support their team—almost to the extent that France for much of the time “became a colony of Denmark” (Smyth et al. 2014, p. 77). The Danish fans—always cheerful and later in the 1980s often clad in “klaphats” and with painted faces—became known throughout the 1980s as an antithesis to the English hooligans, who, as opposed to their Viking neighbours, had a reputation for spreading fear and causing mayhem wherever they went. Torbjorn Andersson and Aage Radmann (1998, p. 150) write that the Roligans are “unique among supporters” and praised by the tabloids—when “English hooligans were stigmatised, and described as animals, the Danish Roligans were met with respect and other positive attitudes.” In 1984, the Danish Roligans even won UNESCO’s fair play trophy, evidencing what an impact they had on the wider sporting community. Rob Smyth et al. (2014, p. 77) in their book Danish Dynamite: the Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team, explain well what made the Roligans so special, and it is worth quoting the passage in full:
There are two pictures taken during the European Championship in France that sum up the story of the roligans, the Danish fans who supported their team throughout the eighties. One shows a bare-chested man lying on his back in a field, below a signpost for Lyon, with a Danish flag covering his face from the sun and a bottle of beer resting on his exposed paunch. The other shows two lookalike Danish fans, both wearing jaunty hats, jauntier smiles and a T-shirt sporting the Danish flag. They are chatting to an old French lady who looks intrigued and charmed.
These Danish fans promoted a positive image of Denmark and the phenomenon was instantly picked up by the Danish press, and seen as a source for national pride (Peitersen and Holm Skov 1991; Andersson and Radmann 1998). The opposite ways of describing football fans in England and Denmark can also be linked to socio-economics and representations of class. Andersson and Radmann (1998) highlight a study of English and Danish fans conducted during the 1988 Euros in West Germany. The survey revealed that the Danish fans were older, educated to a higher level and spent on average twice as much money as their English counterparts. Thus, both in the UK and in Denmark, the Danish fans represented the middle classes to a larger extent, and were less threatening and more likeable—and thus better representatives for the new, affluent, international football fan. Irish fans built a strong reputation as carefree and friendly around the 1988 Euros, and the World Cups in 1990 and 1994, and joined Danish fans as media darlings (Scotland’s Tartan Army, albeit popular in the rest of the world, were not as unanimously praised in England). As shown by Marcus Free (1998) in “‘Angels’ with Drunken Faces?”, the positive media image does not always match that of the behaviour and experiences of fans abroad, and the treatment of them by local police. Certain supporter brands are still strong globally (like Scotland, Ireland and Denmark) despite occasional behaviour reminiscent of hooliganism, at least for certain generations of football fans, while English fans abroad are still struggling with the reputation created by previous generations as well as media representations reinforcing old stereotypes.
Media representations of fans can contribute to maintaining dichotomies and emphasising negative stereotypes. One of the most blatant examples, and certainly one of the saddest, is how part of the British media—without critical evaluation of their sources—treated the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, when 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. In April 2016, the Liverpool fans and their families were finally vindicated as a jury ruled that all of the 96 fans had been unlawfully killed and that the fans were not to blame (Conn 2016). That it took 27 years for the fans to be exonerated can be largely ascribed to public attitudes towards football fans in general, which made it far easier at the time to cover up negligence and errors committed by the leadership of the police. The Sun had, a few days after the event, the following text on their front page: “The Truth; some fans picked pockets of victims; some fans urinated on the brave cops; some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life” (The Sun 1989). This propaganda, in combination with the overarching discourse of fans as thugs and hooligans, confirmed the view that they did not count. Brian Reade (1989), writing for The Liverpool Daily Post, wrote in an insightful piece two days after the tragedy: “They didn’t count because they were football fans and in the eyes of authority, and indeed the general public, that placed them beneath contempt.” Reade’s article ends: “Authority hasn’t listened to football fans. It hasn’t wanted to. It hasn’t had to. Because society has been happy to live with the myth that every football fan is a potential criminal. Well nearly 100 people have just paid the price for this woeful misconception.”
The Sun, as opposed to most British newspapers, did not run the 2016 vindication story on their front page. However, they have apologised both in 2004 and 2012 for their coverage in 1989, and wrote on their website in 2016 that “the supporters were not to blame. But the police smeared them with a pack of lies which in 1989 The Sun and others in the media swallowed whole.” This indicates that they do not fully understand their role as a media power, despite again apologising “unreservedly” for their coverage throughout the years: “We apologised prominently 12
years ago, again four years ago on the front page, and do so unreservedly again now” (The Sun 2016).
The Interim Taylor Report, based on inquiries made by Lord Justice Taylor into the Hillsborough disaster in April and May 1989 and presented to Parliament in August that same year, clearly points out inadequate policing and lack of leadership as key components in the make-up of the tragedy—and does not particularly put the blame on the Liverpool supporters. The report was also generally received warmly by the survivors and the bereaved families. A certain type of fan, however, was identified as the reason for the misguided prioritisation made by the police—the “hooligan” (Taylor 1989). The fear of hooliganism had, according to the Interim Taylor Report “led to an imbalance between the need to quell a minority of troublemakers and the need to secure the safety and comfort of the majority” (Taylor 1989, p. 31). Apparently, the priority was to prevent disorder which meant that officers failed to (and were not explicitly asked to) keep track of any overcrowding at the terraces: “Indeed, the view was expressed in evidence that packing fans close together on the terraces assisted in controlling the unruly since the less room they had the less scope there was for misbehaviour” (Taylor 1989, p. 32). This, again, supports the argument that mainstream media had already decided who was to blame—which explains the force with which The Sun hammered home their points on that infamous front page in 1989.
As we saw earlier, there are authors who have claimed that sport fans enjoy higher status than fans of media texts—something which is largely, at least in the United Kingdom, a matter of perspective and perception. Sports fandom, and particularly football fandom, has in England been closely associated with perceptions of and attitudes toward class. The traditional football fan stereotype has been largely dissolved, and anyone going to a Barclays Premier League match at - for example - London Stadium will find that the audience (albeit predominantly male) is to a fair extent made up of families, and that there is a noticeable spread of age, gender and ethnicity. The atmosphere at a football match in England—or anywhere in Europe—is not always friendly, but this is because football matters—the club matters, and the club needs passionate fans—and a football ground is seldom a dangerous environment because of the fans (albeit there are exceptions). However, fans are occasionally treated by football clubs, broadcasters and sponsors as though their contribution to the game is predominantly negative.