Fan or Fanatic?: The Dark Side of Football


Chants, screams, and the thundering noise of hundreds in an overcrowded stadium enveloped the atmosphere at a soccer game in Indonesia. 

Instead of all attention being on the field, however, frantic eyes searched for the nearest exit to escape the riots and tear gas that enveloped the stadium on the night of October 1st, 2022. 

“A soccer game gone wrong” was the response of many news outlets, as they described the tragic events in East Java, Indonesia that night. They draw attention to FIFA’s “response” and the overwhelming support fans, victims’ families, and survivors received from the soccer community. I am all for that; let us take a moment of silence and send our support. 

Let us also address the underlying root of the issue, which is the lack of accountability and transparency about toxic masculinity.

Ever since I was little, I have been bad at sports. My lack of coordination has been my go-to excuse. However, my dad loves soccer. As I grew up, I learned to love it too, and it has become a bonding point for us. I will randomly bring up the latest stats on a soccer team we support or we will make bets as to who will win an upcoming match. It is a sport that unites people, beyond my dad and I, and it is something that I find my passion for now. 

Hearing about people who go to soccer matches with loved ones and don’t come back out of the stadium with them is disheartening, especially when there are no serious repercussions or conversations to invoke change and awareness. I do not ever want to imagine being in a situation where I am laughing in a stadium with my loved ones and then running out without them. The lack of action and proper conversation about the toxicity of fans in the soccer community will cause the continuation of toxic sportsmanship for future generations.  

In moments of crisis, it is easy to allow one’s fight-or-flight instinct to kick in. As a society, we take flight from our instinct to comfort and protect survivors. We send our best wishes, love, and positive thoughts, regardless of nationality. Soccer unites people all over the world: Spain, the USA, Argentina, Mexico, Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, England, and so many other countries. Tragedies like the one in Indonesia have also repeatedly happened before within the soccer community. Most recently, earlier this year in Mexico, over twenty people were seriously injured as riots broke out where fans wielded metal crowbars to use utter violence to establish their dominance.

Although I grew up in Chicago my whole life, I have my parents to thank for passing on and teaching me our Mexican culture. I also learned about the dark side: machismo and how toxic masculinity is present regardless of where you find yourself on this expansive globe. In my mind, there is absolutely no excuse to go after families that support the opposing team with a crowbar to establish your dominance or that your team is better. 

Although women, such as myself, enjoy this sport and are absolutely phenomenal at playing it, soccer was viewed as being a predominantly male-dominated sport until just a few decades ago. That mentality is still alive and causes these moments where brute force is used to establish dominance and feel superior to another team. In this specific match, fans flooded the field to riot about how they lost to their rivals, and when the fights started, police further instigated the situation by throwing tear gas at the fans and stands. Over 100 lives were lost, almost a fifth of those being children, caught up in adults’ toxic sportsmanship. This behavior should be sanctioned further than it has been.

After the match in East Java, FIFA’s president said it was a dark day for the soccer community. That was it; no further action was taken on their behalf. Although FIFA has no control over domestic games, it has control over other matters. For example, they can reevaluate the fact that Indonesia is set to host the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The final decision on whether it will be hosted in Indonesia or not will be announced later this month. Nonetheless, before we host the U-20 World Cup in a country where it is a known danger to go to a game, we must first address and discuss the long-standing history of violence in soccer matches. 

Speaking of which, it is crucial for society to recognize its faults regarding the beautiful game before this year’s World Cup. As a society, and as a soccer community, we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the toxic history of sportsmanship associated with the game. Soccer unites people. It remains true, as we see the excitement building around preparations for the upcoming World Cup. As we see our IE soccer teams laugh and play on our fields. I see children the age of my nephew stumble around the streets with a mini soccer ball while their parents and onlookers admire them in adoration. If we can unite through our passion for the beautiful game, we should unite even further to start the conversation about why fans are so rooted in a mentality that instigates blood feuds with other teams. 

You can have a preference for a team, whether you are a Real Madrid or Barcelona fan. Your preference for who you will be supporting should never put you at a physical risk of harm. Change starts with us, and our first step in the right direction is talking about this issue: the toxic sportsmanship of soccer fans. 

Featured cover image: A girl is evaluated by fans during the riots at Kanjuruhan Stadium CREDIT: H PRABOWO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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