Sweden: “Don’t be fooled that England solved its problem”

source: DIF TV; author: michał

Sweden: “Don’t be fooled that England solved its problem” Safety expert Prof. Clifford Stott gave an interview to DIF TV, the club television of Djurgården IF. An interview that we had to republish and you have to watch and/or read!


As many of our readers surely are aware, this year’s football season opening in Sweden was spoiled by a tragic incident. Stefan Isaksson, a supporter of Djurgården IF, was killed in a beating during his away trip to Helsingborg. The sad event caused an outbreak of media appeals for stricter punishment for hooliganism. One of Swedish ministers even suggested football fans should be banned from attending any away games for their own safety.

In this difficult situation the club cooperates with Professor Clifford Stott from the University of Leeds. This man is one of those that changed safety strategies in global football, beginning with Euro 2004. One of the leading crowd psychology experts gave an interview to DIF TV, the club television of Djurgården. This material is so good that we needed to share it with you. Below you’ll find both the video and written versions of the interview. In both cases be ready to spend 20 minutes on this material. But it’s worth it.

DIFTV: Why are you in Stockholm?

I’m here for a number of reasons. I’ve been teaching at the police academy yesterday, I’m involved very much with the Swedish police in the development of dialogue units and I’ve been involved in training. Because the police in Sweden use my theories of crowd psychology and its relationship with policing to find a rationale for their policing of crowds, in particular for the dialogue police.

These days an understanding of crowd psychology is important and I do a lot of work to communicate, to teach police officers about how crowds work, why violence happens and what forms of policing work to try and diminish conflicts, which aren’t always about being heavy-handed, showing weapons and building fences. They’re very much about engaging with people, talking to them, building solutions based on dialogue and building policing on the framework of human rights, respect for human rights. […]

DIFTV: Why do you think it’s so important for clubs to build such partnership with science and with police?

There’s very much a trend, certainly in the UK but I think across large parts of Europe, for what we call ‘evidence-based policing’. So often in these kinds of environments we have a million and one experts, people whose point of view is taken as fact, as reality. Whereas in actual fact it’s little more than an opinion. What we actually need to provide solutions and importantly to defend good practice is a solid scientific underpinning that shows, with evidence, that these approaches work. So in order to create that evidence it’s very important to develop partnerships.

But I think it’s also important to recognize that solutions to the problem of violence in football are about partnerships, they can’t be solved by one single party, one single group. It’s not the responsibility of just the clubs or just the police or just the fans. It’s a complex process that can only be addressed adequately if we include a number of different agents in the solution.

DIFTV: Earlier you said it’s not a problem of football really, it’s about crowd management.

Yeah, one of the areas where I concentrate is trying to help people overcome their misunderstanding about why crowd violence occurs. As I mentioned already, a lot of people have strong opinions about why it occurs, but when you analyse those opinions you realize they don’t really make sense about what’s going on. And of course one of the dominant arguments in relation to football violence is that football violence is simply the outcome of the presence of hooligan fans.

But that’s not the case, it’s often a matter of crowd management practices leading to circumstances where violence develops. Where nobody did actually come in to that circumstance planning to be violent. And if we could solve that problem, if we could manage these situations more effectively, we could do reduce the overall levels of conflict and make football a much more attractive place, more family-oriented and more exciting place, without denying people the opportunity to enjoy football in the way that they want to, vociferously and with passion. It’s not about making football sterile, it’s about managing situations in effective ways.

For me the best framework to understand how to produce those solutions is very much taking a perspective based on crowds, crowd management and crowd psychology. Crowd psychology can teach us a great deal about how to understand and how to resolve the problem. And if we labour on the misunderstanding that it’s ‘just about hooliganism’, what we’re going to end up with is an approach that doesn’t work. But also really, really importantly that actually increases the problem. And increases the risk that while trying to find a solution to that problem we’re actually creating another one, which is robbing people of their civil liberties and creating a very heavy-handed, reactionary policing response that undermines the very foundations of our democracy.

DIFTV: In your articles you show how the way we think of crowds has changed a lot…

It’s a complex issue. We must remember that crowd psychology has been with us for over a hundred years. And initially it was not developed as a science about understanding in some neutral way how crowds work. It was realistically an attempt to build mechanisms of social control. And theories that grew up in that period took a view of the crowd as a place where we lose rationality, we become mad, part of a mob and that mob psychology is why we get violent.

That’s fundamentally wrong. It doesn’t take account of what actually happens, it doesn’t help us understand when riots are going to happen, why, who’s going to get involved and what people are going to do in those riots. Given that it’s so useless, I really think we need to get rid of that theory. But for some reason it stays among dominant perspectives in the authorities, in common sense views of why violence happens.    

So a lot of my work is about disabusing that view and getting people to understand that crowds work in a different way. People don’t lose understanding in the crowd, they develop a particular understanding that sometimes creates justifications for violence. And those justifications are often created in the circumstance by heavy-handed policing. Ironically, our attempts as a society to try and stop the problem actually produce the problem. Which is really counter-productive. If we want to solve the problem, we need to understand the nature of the problem accurately. When we see the crowd psychology not as madness, but as meaningful response to the circumstances, we can try and shape those circumstances for people not to see violence as legitimate or justified response. It’s very important that we reject the old understanding of mad mobs and replace it with a scientific analysis based on evidence, which shows us that a crowd works in a different way.

DIFTV: A big turning point was the Euro 2004. Tell us more about the strategy that produced it.

I’m a peculiar kind of academic. For me it’s not about theories, it’s about solutions. Using a theory to build solutions to these problems. And for me those opportunities came in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when football violence with English fans travelling to Europe was a major political issue. After all it’s called ‘the English Disease’ as if we invented it. Certainly English hooliganism has been a major issue since the late 80s. We were looking at the tournament of 1998, building our model of why this was happening.

Interestingly, we had the opportunity to study Scotland fans as well as England fans at the same tournament. By this time Scottish fans weren’t being violent, they were renowned for what we call convalesque behavior, whereas England fans were known for their violence. So we were comparing these two fan sets. What’s strange about the Scotland fans is that in the domestic context there’s a lot of violence. It’s not unusual or unheard of for people to be murdered at the Old Firm derby. So how is it that this context of domestic violence suddenly disappears internationally?

We began to recognize it was very much about the policing practices. Because the local police expected violence from English fans, they were treating them in really hostile ways. And also, English fans were being attacked by local fans who wanted to test themselves against the English hooligans. So there was this catalogue of circumstances that was feeding into this English football violence. It wasn’t about whether English fans were hooligans, it was about the expectations that they were. With Scotland fans this was very different, the policing practice was lower level and there wasn’t an expectation of violence.     

So despite the fact that the fans were behaving pretty much in the same way, the interpretation of that behavior was fundamentally different, which didn’t feed into aggressive practices. It therefore created a culture within which Scotland fans began what we call self-regulate. It’s not a question of whether there are hooligans present or not. It’s that when people start to behave in an anti-social manner, other fans step in and say “we’re not having that – sit down, calm down, shut up”. And that was solving the problem.

We decided that if we can create similar policing around English fans, we can find a solution to the ‘English Disease’. We started to work with the Portuguese police to build a security policy in line with our theories and research. And fortunately we were able to do that. What the Portuguese police did was secure the cities in line with these theories and there was no major disorder. Once we were actually able to implement this and people were able to see it successes, they started to wake up and say “ok, so it’s not just a theory, it’s a solution”. The research we developed from that point began to influence practices at an international level. We’ve also had influence on the national level, in Sweden or Denmark, all over the world in many respects.

DIFTV: So what makes you interested in working with a club like Djurgarden?

I think in part it’s about your progressive attitude. The dialogue-based solution, despite its success, needs to be thoughtful. It won’t be easy to sustain. There’s a lot of pressure in society, in police forces, among politicians to push things in the direction of using force, to see the dialogue-based approach as somehow ‘going soft’ or ‘excusing’ violence. As if the real solution was arming the police, giving them weapons and control. It’s important to assure that when a society is challenged by violence like Sweden, we don’t see the society going in the wrong direction. This is why we’re building partnerships with clubs like yours so that we can produce more research, build more evidence and empower an approach to this problem that doesn’t run the same risks of denying people their basic human rights. Because if we have a solution based on the European convention of human rights, it’s more likely to succeed.

DIFTV: As a club we often find ourselves targeted and sometimes we wish the politicians took more matters into their own hands. So why are we often defending ourselves as a club, while it’s a very complex issue…

Everything about this problem is complex, so I can only speculate about an answer to a very complicated question. For me one of the issues that may be relevant to consider here is that football is used as ‘political football’. Societies perceive their governments based on certain issues, like the economy, crime and disorder. If you think about it, there’s not many places where discussions about disorder go on in society, other than in football. So we have to recognize that very often what governments do while talking about the problem of violence in society, is they give us a story of why the violence exists to suit us. They portray the problem in a way that gives them as a solution so that we vote for them. That’s their job, they’re politicians. But at the same time that undermines us, people who have practical experience in tackling the problem, from operating. Because they steer the solutions from what we need to do towards what they need to be seen doing to win them votes and credibility.

So violence in football is very politicized. It might seem apolitical, it may be portrayed along the notion that it’s just mindless violence, but it’s far from it. It’s a reflection of underlying problems in our society and our ability to tackle these problems is to start talking about what they really are to address them realistically. And often that’s very hard for politicians to do, because it starts to expose their personal culpability in creating circumstances that make the violence happen in the first place. Of course they can’t accept that, of course they’re going to do everything they can to defend their position. What we need to do is try and navigate that political dynamic to put in place solutions that are actually going to deliver the actual changes.

From my point of view it’s much about creating a more positive environment around football, not take us in the direction of a repressive situation, because bear in mind, we have a tragedy in the UK of going in that direction. We went in that direction in the 1980s, when hooliganism in English football was rife. And we ended up with the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy. And that tragedy was the direct outcome of a repressive, public-order-oriented, when we ended up fencing fans into the terraces and it was those fences  that killed those fans ultimately.

DIFTV: In Sweden people often say: “Why don’t we just copy and paste from England?” You mean England has not solved its problems?

No, no. It’s unsustainable to argue that England has solved the problem. Far from it. I mean, we spend at least 25 million pounds a year on policing football. Now that is not a solution. That’s a lot of money that’s pumped into the police response in football that reflects a much broader underlying problem that we still need to address. A lot of work I’m doing is how to make the police response more effective than it currently is. It’s not to say that we haven’t had some great successes. We certainly transformed things. If you think back 10-15 years ago, English hooliganism was a major problem. But the solution came not only through policing, but also changing the policing response that just fed into the cultural change among English fans. The policing response is only one part of that change.

So don’t be fooled that England has solved its problem, because it hasn’t. And secondly, the English response to the English problem is not necessarily the response that’s needed here. Your football culture is different than ours. I mean, we don’t have in England an ultra culture, apart from one or two clubs. Here the cultural background is very, very different. That needs to be taken into account. But having said that I do think there are general principles, through which crowds can be managed in a universal way. The key issue is about those general principles and how they apply in the Swedish context. My argument would be that if we could create an environment in which they could be applied effectively, Sweden will see a major reduction in incidents of disorder.