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Supporters Groups Tread a Thin Line Between Fanaticism and Hooliganism

Toronto FC supporter group Inebriatti learned this lesson the hard way, leading to their status being revoked by the Major League Soccer club.
Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play, it is bound up with hatred and jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in unnecessary violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” – George Orwell (1941)

Why do we still talk about pro sports games as "battles" or see camouflage-themed uniforms show up at team gift shops, or willingly whip up the sort of "us versus them" fervour that could, in other social contexts, be a precursor to prison time?


It's because, like it or not, our mostly-evolved ape brains still predispose us toward thoughts and behaviours that don't jive especially well with modern ideals of civilization. And what do we do with that energy?

We either forcibly suppress our animalistic instincts (only to, inexorably, see them spill out in unpredictable ways), or we channel them into more pro-social endeavours, like cheering for a bunch of folks in one style of uniform to get more points than the folks in the other uniform.

This brings us to the tale of the Inebriatti.

The Toronto FC supporters group—a self-described "brotherhood of reprobates, misfits and lunatics"—came to prominence around 2013. But on Thursday, TFC permanently stripped the Inebriatti of its supporters group status and refunded the season tickets of all known members.

Inebriatti members in Toronto before a TFC game. Photo by Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

In the intervening five years, the group had become the most visible and rambunctious presence in the south end of BMO Field, as the Reds hosted the MLS Cup final in 2016 and 2017. They'd also, however, developed a reputation for flouting the established guidelines for supporters groups, and were routinely linked to delinquent and even dangerous behaviour that the group generally disavowed.

The last straw came in July, when an explosive flare was tossed onto the field and caused a fire during a game in Ottawa, where TFC was competing in the Canadian Championship tournament. After an initial denial, the group did admit responsibility, and proclaimed its intent to change its ways. But, evidently, that wasn't enough.


While many within the broader TFC fan community reacted with thinly veiled Schadenfreude to news of the group's expulsion, the subtext of most reactions has been that the club's decision was especially bold and impressive specifically because of Inebriatti's key role in creating a daunting atmosphere at BMO Field.

And there's the rub. While the group's repeated transgressions might have made this ban seem inevitable, the reality is that, to some extent, every supporters group in every city channels the same visceral volatility to help get their point across.

That's not to say that the "all soccer fans are hooligans" stereotype still espoused by particularly dim soccer haters is true. But it's also unhelpful and inaccurate to pretend that the expulsion of one particular group could fully and permanently expunge corrosive behaviour from BMO Field, or any other venue.

Rather, it's important for all those involved to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate what is possible and desirable within the strange culture of North American soccer, which tries to blend family-friendly fun with the aesthetic of European "ultras"—and find a middle ground that continues building the sport on this continent.

When any club enters into a symbiotic relationship with a supporters group, it's taking a calculated risk: relying upon the members of that group to harness their tribalistic passions enough to help sell tickets and merchandise, but not to such a point that it endangers people or property.

The difference between the two can, at times, be blurry. What, after all, is the "ideal" environment for a pro sporting event? The answer lies somewhere between corporate-mandated polite clapping and de facto anarchy—but where?

The Inebriatti wasn't the first group in MLS—or even in Toronto—to butt heads with the club's front office over this fundamental question. The difference, however, was that while other groups found ways to clamp down on their more problematic elements, the now-banned Toronto group was unable and/or unwilling to effectively police themselves.

Although the blanket ban is undoubtedly unfortunate for individuals who weren't culpable for the group's more egregious moments, and the atmosphere at BMO Field will surely change in the months and years to come, let's be clear that the Inebriatti are no martyrs here.

After all, sports may be war without shooting, but it is not without casualties—a lesson that the Inebriatti learned just a bit too late.