What makes a man run onto a football pitch and attack another man whom he has never met? Tribalism? Hyper masculinity? Hyper stupidity? The outcome for the man who recently ran onto the pitch at Birmingham City to assault an Aston Villa player 10 minutes into the derby was a lifetime ban from his own football club, a 10-year ban from all matches, fines, and 14 weeks in jail.
Oh, and widespread derision. Was it worth it?
The very same weekend, a Man U player was shoved by an Arsenal supporter who also ran onto the pitch. Why? What did these fans hope to achieve? Did they magically think they could influence the game? Why do some male supporters — but not female supporters — end up being banned from the very thing that gives them a core sense of identity?
Anthropologists call it ‘identity fusion’ — a visceral feeling of oneness with the group, where your sense of individuality is subsumed. Like the army, the police, boyband fans, 90s ravers. And of course religions, the gold standard of identity fusion.
Football is far more than overpaid haircuts chasing a ball around a field. It is a secular ritual, a place where repressed masculinity gets to hug, kiss, cry, bawl, in a contained space. Where rage and joy and sorrow are all allowed. Where devotion to your team is shown by how far your travel, how much you spend, how much skin you’ve had inked.
Obviously not all fans are coked-up hooligans. For a start, it’s too expensive — the football, not the coke. At a recent away game — Crystal Palace v Brighton — such is the invented, ancient blood feud between supporters that we, the away fans, have to be funnelled into the grounds through a phalanx of riot police and horses, roads sealed off, special trains booked. My Brighton scarf stays in my bag until we are well inside the away stand.
Earlier, in a Crystal Palace greasy caff for pre-match breakfast, our cover was almost blown when one of us asks for avocado.
When we score the winning goal — ‘we’, not ‘the team’ — it feels as if the away stand will combust with wild euphoria. Screaming, leaping, hugging, howling. Middle-aged men who could drop dead from heart attacks of joy. (This is actually a thing — there is a link between football results and a spike in coronary deaths).
Had we lost, men who cannot cry at the funerals of loved ones would have tears running down their faces. There may have been violence, beyond the grounds.
In Brazil, where violent football fans — torcidas organizadas — remain a menace, Recife FC had a brainwave — security mums.
Stewarding the grounds with older women. Turns out Brazilian hooligans are far less likely to lamp each other in front of match stewards who look like their mothers.
Pure Freudian genius — but would it work in Europe? Would a fierce middle-aged mum with her arms folded have deterred that Birmingham City muppet thumping the Aston Villa player? Worth a try, surely.