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Securitisation of Football Fans

It's been a month since the 2022-23 Premier League season drew to a close and fan discontent is arguably at an all-time high. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Chelsea fan.

Let’s set the scene. Atmosphere is hailed as a vital component of all football fixtures – especially a London derby. It enhances the experience for all viewers both in the stadium and out of it, creating a sense of existential importance to what is just a game. And so, when the ‘ultras’ responsible for leading the chants and songs pull a seeming no-show, the silence is deafening.

This was the case just last month, when Arsenal fan organisation, the ‘Ashburton Army’ were absent from the opening half-hour of the Gunners’ home match against Chelsea without explanation. Oddly observant fans took to social media to question the phenomena, with theories of the group being ‘kicked out’ of the stadium whilst others called the cohort ‘glory hunters’ who ditch support for the squad when things get hard.

The Ashburton Army vacating their places during Arsenal vs. Chelsea, 2nd May 2023

Following these bold yet untrue theories, the group published a statement. They clarified their absence as a demonstration carried out in protest of the ‘treatment of ordinary football fans’ as ‘high-risk criminals’ - having been subject to measures such as ID checks and being recorded by Emirates Stadium security without their knowledge or permission. This occurrence is yet merely one iteration of a much broader trend of the over-policing of football fans and their subsequent securitisation seen throughout all tiers of English football.

From the use of facial recognition technology in a south Wales derby in 2020 between Swansea City and Cardiff City, to female fans claiming to have had their bras searched by Grimsby Town security in 2017, fans have been routinely providing accounts of being dehumanised by football security. A similar pattern is emerging overseas too, as seen by the teargassing of Liverpool fans by French police prior to the 2022 Champions League final.

But of course, security is needed at football games. It keeps the crowds safe. Violence is a regrettably unfortunate truth of football events – explaining the existence of organisations such as KickItOut. So, what’s the issue here? Before answering this question, a small (and incredibly oversimplified) history of football in class terms needs to be addressed.

Liverpool fans outside the 2022 Champions League Final.

Football is an embedded facet of working-class culture, entrenched with political associations and the basis of community for many who lack this in a contemporary age of neoliberal-induced individualism. As such, stadiums become an oasis of ‘togetherness’ and the heralding of local values, giving people both an escape and an identity outside of their class position. Given this context, the linking of football fans to ‘criminals’ and cultures of hooliganism reinforces stigma of the ‘ungovernable’ and ‘rowdy’ working-class who burden society and cannot be tamed. Or in less words, ‘hooliganism’.

Measures taken to mitigate disruption from specific sections of football fans has become synonymous with the demonisation of the working-class population at large. The targeting of football fans in this regard implies a higher potentiality for crime which fans of ‘higher class’ sports are exempt from. As such, this imagery of policed football events contributes to a gross caricature of the ‘boisterous’ and unmanageable lower class.

Naturally, this notion of ‘uncontrollable’ fans attending football games sets precedent for the implementation of stricter security measures, leading club regulars to fear where this securitisation will end. NFL stadiums in the US have already seen the implementation of

biometric modes of entry, using fingerprint technology as a security feature to mitigate the entry of fans who have been noted to have caused ‘problems’ during past events. I think I can safely say without exaggeration that any technology of this kind would destroy Premier League attendance beyond repair.

However, who is to say that this isn’t the aim of such measures? Killing Premier League attendances could be argued as not being merely a by-product of this security shift, but rather the overall goal. In making it harder for these ‘troublesome’ and hostile working class fans to attend games, owners and higher ups are able to ‘sanitise’ the average match attendance through limiting it to the wealthier fans, as opposed to the hardcore ‘ruffians’ and devoted matchgoers. The day-trippers, the hospitality box-afforders, as well as those coming from abroad to get matchday stadium tours are seen as more ‘valuable’ fans to owners, leading to the wholesale replacement of the average fan with the corporate consumer. This neatly summarises the marketplace that football, as a business, has become – with fanbases as interchangeable commodities to be bought and sold.

Marco Materazzi and Rui Costa share a moment during a Milan Derby Champions League game in 2005.

With stadium entry beginning to resemble that of an airport pat-down, fans are inevitably beginning to feel alienated in the ground that they call home. This degree of distancing between fans and clubs becomes the physical manifestation of the broader modern form of class warfare ongoing within clubs, from ever increasing ticket prices to the commercialisation of billionaire-owned clubs.

The end of this season has seen clubs even at the bottom of the table announcing increases in season ticket prices, with 17th-placed Everton’s going up 10% and Nottingham Forest, who finished 16th in their first season back in the top flight, shooting up by 20%. This means that even when fans are willing to look past being treated like cattle to attend games, they are being priced out of attendance through the commodification of a once unifying and accessible sport.

These factors combining have been disastrous for fan satisfaction across the League, with feelings of betrayal being expressed on social media. It highlights a gap between the portrayed treatment of fans versus how this manifests in reality. Take Arsenal as an example; the club has been lauded for its commitment to community action such as giving COVID-19 jabs in the Emirates and launching campaigns in opposition to knife crime. In isolation, these acts paint the portrait of a club dedicated to the ‘people’ and giving back wherever possible. However, these philanthropic acts become performative when taken in relation to how fans experience matchday at large.

The Premier League’s treatment of fans is in a dire state. The matter of fact is, along with the rising costs of matches, fans across the country will be inclined to shift their support toward their more local, cheaper, lower league clubs.

That being said, Reading F.C. here I come.


Libby Hooper is a Sociology student at the University of Cambridge, with specific interest in animal welfare, class commentary, and women’s rights. Outside of academia she is often having various football related crises, as well as being a devoted and humble mother of one (her daughter-cat, Winnie). You can find her on Twitter, most likely wasting precious energy on debating with people who refuse to change their opinions: @libbylouisecph

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