Evidence gathered over several World Cups suggests a significant rise in male-to-female domestic violence in several countries during the tournament. The explanation for this rise is likely to be messy.
Historically, football has been a vehicle of masculine gender identification and solidarity. Women and girls have tended to be excluded, marginalised or demeaned in the football world. The type of masculinity most celebrated in the culture of football is ‘hegemonic masculinity’, characterised by physical and psychological domination, an ethos of excess and the denigration of anything thought to smack of the feminine, such as emotion, moderation, abstinence, the mind, personal sensibility and male homosexuality.
Now add high levels of alcohol consumption to this mix, and it only gets worse.
If playing contact sport is the context in which one most demonstrates one’s masculinity, then football fandom might be a good proxy, with its social admiration of toughness, contempt for softness (physical and psychological), homophobia, boorish attitudes towards women, cultivated hostilities and heavy drinking. Therefore, the environment of fandom is a fertile site for the release of men’s ‘inner boor’, which might not be quarantined when a man gets back through the front door of the house.
"The type of masculinity most celebrated in the culture of football is ‘hegemonic masculinity’, characterised by physical and psychological domination."
The World Cup has precise qualities that sharpen the toxicity sketched above. It is a comparatively infrequent, ‘short and fat’ event with high stakes, particularly for nations – such as England – with a strong football pedigree and consequent hopes of progress to the business end of the tournament. Contests might be imagined, explicitly or obliquely, as tests of national virility and machismo.
There is no single or easy solution to the problem of domestic violence during the World Cup, given the cultural freight underlying it. But we should not conclude resignedly that inroads are not possible. Despite the persistence of the preceding regressive baggage, the culture of football has seen some genuine and progressive change in recent times.
For instance, women and girls are more accepted and more comfortable, as players, officials, commentators, journalists and fans. Gay men are not the no-no they once were. Racism is arguably less virulent than before. Literature in the last twenty-five years or so, most obviously Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, has helped make educated and cultivated men – many middle-class - unabashed about their love of football and their hope of exerting influence on its regressive cultural underbelly. Players and managers are often a very different beast from that of thirty or forty years ago.
Stadia are, post-Hillsborough, vastly more civilised than of yore. And beyond stadia, people sometimes watch games over a meal in a salubrious pub.
"Hegemonic masculinity is not the kind of masculinity that is most celebrated in the game itself by the fans."
While there is clearly still some way to go, continuing down this road of ideological and atmospheric change is a good platform for eventual cutting of the cultural connections between football and hegemonic masculinity, aggression, alcohol, nationalism and gendered violence.
Football supporters’ clubs, including the England Supporters’ Club, naturally, can play a significant role in countering football-related domestic violence. While they cannot fully police their members’ behaviour, they can take remedial measures, such as discussing the problem, discouraging macho ideals of masculinity and broader sexist attitudes, the untoward consumption of alcohol, and instead encouraging social, psychological, cultural and emotional inclusiveness.
But there is an irresistible and potentially profitable irony out there. For all the well-documented affinity between football and hegemonic masculinity, the latter is not the kind of masculinity that is most celebrated in the game itself by the fans. The most celebrated footballers are not esteemed for macho qualities. Instead, what is most admired about, for instance, Ronaldo, Messi, Modric, Mbappe, Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Best, Dalglish, Platini and Gascoigne are their craft, speed, touch, nimbleness, cunning and artistry. Faced with opponents such as these, toughness, physical power and aggression are often handicaps. Therefore, reminding football fans what they most admire in the game and the kind of masculinity it embodies could help steer them away from the kind of masculinity that yet dominates the culture of fandom and is implicated in domestic violence. Supporters’ clubs could, again, be conduits of such healthy reminders.