Changes in fans’ attitudes, and the way stadiums are configured and managed have all contributed to a decrease in violence and mayhem around English soccer in the past 20 years, but perhaps the biggest change has come in the way the sport is policed.
“Football violence and disorder hasn’t gone away, it’s just better managed and controlled,” said Andy Holt, head of the soccer policing unit for the Association of Chief Police Officers of England.
Each Premier League team is assigned a full-time police officer to work with the team and with fans’ groups in spotting and preventing trouble. Aided by security guards employed by the teams, the police patrol the stands and arrest people who are drunk, disorderly or abusive; bar violent fans from matches; use police “spotters” and security cameras with facial-recognition software to identify wrongdoers and catch barred fans who try to sneak in; ensure that groups of opposing fans are kept separate so they will not attack each other; and assess each match to figure out how much security is needed, from no officers to hundreds of them, sometimes on horseback, in riot gear or with sniffer dogs.
Just as terrorist threat levels are set according to the authorities’ perception of the current risk, so each soccer match is awarded its own risk level, from A to C, with C being the highest.
Variables are considered, including whether the teams are sworn enemies, as with Manchester City and Manchester United; whether fans have a history of bad temper or fighting at previous encounters; whether the kickoff time is late in the day, meaning fans are more likely to be drunk; and how crucial the match is to the teams’ fortunes.
“If the winner is going to get promoted or the loser’s going to get relegated, there’s something to play for and that might increase the level of disorder,” Holt said.
The police tend to know which fans are likely to cause trouble — these are called risk supporters. The police know which pubs they congregate in, and even which buses and trains they are likely to take when traveling to away games.
“If we want to go and confront the risk supporters, we can go and occupy their pub,” Holt said.
The police can also issue so-called banning orders, which make it illegal for violent fans to go anywhere near their teams’ stadium on match days. Most banning orders last for five years and about 2,500 are in effect in England.
The orders have proved particularly effective when teams play abroad.
Holt compared the levels of security used to keep violent fans from leaving the country to the layers of an onion, with each layer being more stringent. Some fans are required to turn in their passports; others have to report in person to their local police station during the match.
In some cases, the police alert immigration authorities at major exit ports to look out for the miscreants “in case they try to use their brother’s passport,” he said.
The police also sometimes bar busloads of away fans from stopping on the highway on the way to the match, to ensure that they drink less and all come as a supervised group. They can, and often do, require fans sitting in the away section — typically filling about 5 percent to 15 percent of the seats in a stadium — to wait until the rest of the stadium is cleared after the match before leaving their seats.
They can meet trainloads of supporters at train and subway stations, and escort them to the match.
In extreme situations, they can put the away fans in a “bubble,” meaning they are under guard from the moment they leave their hometowns to the moment they return. This happened recently in a match between Hull City and Huddersfield Town, where the only way for the away Hull fans to get tickets was to travel on special buses under tight supervision.
After the match, they were escorted back to the buses and driven back to Hull.
The tough approach has been credited with helping change the game’s tone and reputation, but fans’ groups say they often feel patronized and made to suffer for the sins of the few.
“The police have plenty of powers without having to use draconian powers like carting people around in convoys,” said Steve Powell, director of policy and campaigns for the Football Supporters’ Federation. “We are totally against violence. What we don’t want is the peaceful majority being criminalized just for being football supporters.”