Why Is There so Much Violence in Soccer?

Violence among soccer fans is a phenomenon that we see far too often. What causes this behavior? In this article, we'll explore some theories that may help explain this.
Why Is There so Much Violence in Soccer?
Francisco Javier Molas López

Written and verified by the psychologist Francisco Javier Molas López.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Why is there so much violence in soccer, specifically among fans? We see many news stories about violent clashes between rival fans. The last violent occurrence happened in the Copa Libertadores finals, during a game between the Argentine teams River Plate and Boca Juniors.

As a result of the violence between fan groups, the final game was played in Spain rather than Argentina. Many people often feel confused and shocked when this sort of collective behavior takes place. They don’t understand why it happens.

In this regard, psychology has been studying collective social behavior for years. In this article, we’ll try to shed some light on the motives behind such violent and aggressive behavior.

Violence in soccer from the deindividuation process

First of all, to explain violence in soccer, we need to address the deindividuation process. Although this process doesn’t explain violence, it does explain collective group behavior.

Soccer fans cheering.

Imagine that you’re at a soccer game and a player of the rival team is nearby. If you intended to insult them, but you were surrounded by rival fans, you probably wouldn’t end up doing it. With that being said, what would happen if you were surrounded by fans of your own team?

If the fans around you also support your team, you’d all probably end up verbally attacking the rival soccer player. What’s the difference between the two situations? Anonymity and responsibility.

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

-Isaac Asimov-

Moral, Gómez, and Canto (2004) pointed out that: “In these situations, anonymity, the group, and reduced individual self-awareness can lead people to uninhibited, impulsive, and illegal behaviors.”

When we enjoy anonymity, we become more inclined towards violent actions. If no one could know that we were the ones insulting them, we’d be more likely to do it than if we were the center of attention. Being in a group lowers our self-awareness, as we’re able to transfer our responsibility to the group. We stop being us and, instead, we become the group.

The conformity process

Conformity is another process that could explain violence at soccer games. This process consists of modifying an individual’s response and bringing it closer to the group’s response. In other words, we change our behavior depending on the group.

Paéz and Campos noted that: “Conformity is the change of beliefs or behaviors due to group pressure. It modifies the individual’s disposition towards norms established by the group in question.”

We can find different types of norms in groups. Among them is the descriptive norm, which indicates how a person acts in the group, and the prescriptive norm, which indicates how a person is expected to act. Conformity is a type of regulatory influence since the individual is capable of changing their behavior to adapt to the group. They’re even capable of behaving in an opposite way of how they’d behave individually.

“Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.”

-Mahatma Gandhi-

Consequently, if our group behaves violently, we’d be likely to adopt their same behavior. This conformity increases as the group’s control over its members and their interdependence increases. It also increases when there’s a certain level of uncertainty or ambiguity. We adopt the group’s behaviors when we don’t know what else to do.

Conformity increases when there’s a similarity between the group and the individual. If a person identifies with a soccer team and with a violent ideology of a fan group, they’re more likely to agree to behave violently.

Soccer games can often become violent.

Final reflection

If someone hasn’t been properly taught and is used to resolving differences through violence, they’d be likely to act aggressively when facing a disagreement. Therefore, a respectful upbringing can help avoid this type of behavior.

A rich inner world and an open, reflexive mind also help us strengthen ourselves and reduce our need to be a part of a group. In many cases, there’s a hidden lack of self-esteem behind this need that we attempt to ease by being part of a group. The feeling of belonging gives us a sense of emotional fulfillment. Therefore, if someone hasn’t developed an inner sense of fulfillment, they’ll look for it externally.

Learning and knowing ourselves is essential to avoid becoming part of violent groups. The lower our self-esteem is and the “stronger” the group is, the more we’ll need to belong to it. Thus, if we start to respect ourselves and others, these situations will be a thing of the past.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.