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Hooligans Aren’t Destroyers—They’re Protectors

Research shows fan violence is motivated by group commitment.

Photo by ELEVATE from Pexels
Source: Photo by ELEVATE from Pexels

Sports crowds can be rowdy. In extreme instances, bullying, vandalism, and rioting can break out. The people instigating these activities are normally referred to as hooligans.

When most people think of a hooligan they imagine a young – typically male – troublemaker. They associate hooliganism with toxic masculinity from people that have trouble fitting into society.

However, research by Martha Newson and her co-investigators provides evidence that fan hooliganism is based on our need to feel a part of a group instead of a deviant demand for destruction.

The Details

In their study, Newson and colleagues got Brazilian football fans to fill out a survey. Roughly half of those who filled out the survey were normal fans. The other half belonged to torcidas organizadas – Brazilian super fan groups. Violence between rival torcidas organizadas has escalated to a point where injury, stadium bans, jail time, and even death are not uncommon.

On top of their affiliation to a torcidas organizadas, the researchers also looked at the fan’s identity fusion ­­­­ – a form of commitment where someone feels so tied to a group that they fuse a part of their personal identity to the group identity. Identity fusion leads the person to view group threats as personal threats. Thus, someone with strong identity fusion will go to extreme lengths to protect their in-group against external dangers. In this specific case, Newson and co. write:

For strongly fused persons, involvement in torcidas organizadas may embolden acts of hostility and self-sacrifice as efforts to defend one’s psychological brothers-in-arms.

The Results

Team identity fusion

In the first step of the study, demographics were used to try and predict a fan’s willingness for violence as well as their willingness to fight and die for the fan’s team. Newson and colleagues found that younger and less educated fans were more willing to fight and die for their club.

However, in the second step of the analysis, Newson and her collaborators accounted for identity fusion. When accounting for identify fusion, age and education no longer predicted a willingness to fight or die for a fan's club. Identity fusion also predicted the readiness for violence whereas age and education did not predict readiness for violence at any stage of analysis.

The researchers then substituted identify fusion for the Self-Report Social Adjustment scale ­– a measure of how well someone fits into society in their everyday life. If hooligan activities were motivated by someone feeling out of place, this measure should have predicted willingness to be violent or to fight/die for one’s team. However, Newson and colleagues failed to find a link between this social adjustment measure and a fan’s readiness for violence.

Super fan fusion

Unsurprisingly, Newson and colleagues found that members of a torcida organizada were more likely to engage in football-related violence than regular fans. The super fans were more willing to fight and die for other fans of their club. Additionally, members of a torcida organizada generally had higher identity fusion.

But now comes the most interesting part. The researchers then looked at the interaction between being a member of a super fan group and the amount of identity fusion experienced. They found that – when fusion was low – membership in a torcida organizada did not predict fan violence. However – when fusion was high – membership in a torcida organizada did predict violence.

TL;DR: members of a torcida organizada who had high identity fusion to their team were the ones most willing to be violent and to fight or die for their club.

Targeted violence

Members of a torcida organizada did not differ in social adjustment from regular fans; super fans were not found to be maladjusted members of society. Nonetheless, torcida organizada membership and high identity fusion predicted violence against other superfan groups. Membership in a torcida organizada did not predict violence against police, other fans of their own team, or any other group unassociated with soccer. Their violence was targeted at a perceived external threat to their club.

Can this be turned around?

From their point of view, superfan hooligans are doing the right thing. They are sacrificing themselves for the good of the group. The violence these super fans exact is in pursuit of something noble; a willingness to protect their social family.

If that urge to protect could be turned into more pro-social behavior, that instinct could ultimately be a positive thing. Could this urge be turned into charity work? Or somehow turned into a show of strength by aiding outside members?

I’m not naïve enough to say that all violence motivated by identity fusion in sports can be wiped out. But the stigmatization of hooligans works against what we ultimately want – for people to feel connected to others they share an identity with. If we can use that motivation to create more positive outcomes we can’t disregard hooligans as deviants.

Hooligans could, in fact, be future heroes.

Copyright Josh Gonzales


Newson, M., Bortolini, T., Buhrmester, M., da Silva, S. R., da Aquino, J. N. Q., & Whitehouse, H. (2018). Brazil’s football warriors: Social bonding and inter-group violence. Evolution and Human Behavior, 39(6), 675–683.

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