Why the Far-Right Tries To Recruit Football Hooligans

Hardcore football fans have proven a potent weapon for far-right political forces around the world, acting as muscle for ultranationalist and xenophobic movements.
September 2, 2021, 3:14pm
Decade of Hate is a series that covers the dangerous rise of far-right movements across Europe over the past 10 years.

The beautiful game has long had a problem with an ugly subset of fans. 

A small minority of hardline supporters – known variously around the world as hooligans, ultras or casuals – has proven to be a persistent force in far-right street politics, acting as muscle for racist or ultranationalist causes.

From the UK to Israel, Western Europe to Russia, right-wing movements have sought to harness the testosterone-charged energy of the terraces, using hooligans as a weapon to advance their political aims or silence opponents. 

And at times, football hooligans have formed their own street-based political groups, weaponising the tribalism and violence of hooligan culture against external targets. With the rise of movements like the English Defence League and the Football Lads Alliance in the UK, as well as Germany’s Hooligans Against Salafists, hardcore supporters of rival clubs, who might otherwise be clashing, have united in the name of supposedly opposing Islamist extremism – although critics, including the UK’s Premier League, warned that their actions effectively targeted Muslims in general.

Experts say the link between far-right politics and this minority of football supporters runs back to the early days of hooliganism in the UK of the 1970s, where the fascist National Front would try to recruit new members from football terraces and the pubs that surround them.

“When I was a teenager and I was on the terraces, you know, you would see the National Front there. You could see them trying to recruit [with their] leaflets and so on,” said Chris Allen, associate professor in hate studies at the University of Leicester.

This was partly because far-right groups saw the traditional – albeit increasingly outdated – profile of the white, male and working class football fan as a natural constituency for their brand of ultranationalist politics.

“That's not to say to all football fans ... sympathise with the far right,” he said. ‘But I think that there's always been a kind of resonance between the people that are drawn to the far-right and the people that are drawn to football.”