Essay: When Football Goes Home

"If England gets beaten, so will she."

"If England gets beaten, so will she". Picture: National Centre for Domestic Violence UK campaign, 2018

Six weeks before the Men’s Euro 2020 tournament began, Wales named a caretaker manager for their national squad after three charges of domestic abuse were announced against Ryan Giggs, who had been in charge of the team since 2018.

Giggsy, as he is known to us supporters of Manchester United, where he spent his entire playing career from 1991 until retiring in 2016, is accused of abusing his ex-partner and her sister. He has pleaded not guilty.

I have supported Manchester United since 1976, when I was nine years old and Giggs was two. I have cheered Giggsy on and always thought he was one of our best guys. And the charges against him are a reminder--another--that football is one of the many outlets that patriarchy offers to cisgender men as an excuse to treat us like shit. 

Remember that, ahead of this weekend’s epic lineup of finals. On Saturday, arch rivals Brazil and Argentina face off in the Men’s Copa America final. And on Sunday, England are at home in Wembley against Italy for the Three Lions’ first final in an international tournament since 1966 when they won the World Cup, the one and only trophy they have won, that was played also at Wembley.

If “it’s coming home” is shorthand for an intensely optimistic--some would say delusional--confidence in the England men’s football team’s ability to bring back a trophy to where many think the game was born (which is disputed), then patriarchy is the even shorter explanation for the hell that researchers have shown male abusers create at home for women and children after major football games. 

Whether England is the home of football or not matters little to women and children whose abusers make home hell after major football games.

Let’s be clear though: it is not football that makes cisgender men abuse women and children. It is not the alcohol those men readily consume while watching football that makes them hurt women and children. And win, lose or draw, the score doesn’t make a man beat a woman.

Patriarchy does.

It enables and protects abusers. It socializes them to believe they are entitled to our time, attention, and bodies. And like the pandemic-induced lockdowns during which countries around the world have recorded a spike of at least 30 percent in domestic abuse, football tournaments exacerbate pre-existing abusive behaviours. 

Abuse “doesn’t happen by appointment. It happens all year round – it is a choice a perpetrator makes, stemming from power and control, from gender inequality, which misogyny and patriarchy helps perpetuate,” said Kim Manning-Cooper, head of communications at Refuge, a UK charity that operates a 24-hour national domestic abuse helpline.

During lockdown, Refuge logged a 61 percent surge in calls to its domestic abuse helpline in England. In Italy, women who could not call a helpline or directly report domestic abuse to the police could call a police emergency number and say: "I'd like to order a margarita pizza" which would alert the operator to send round a patrol. 

It is not football that makes cisgender men abuse women and children. It is not the alcohol those men readily consume while watching football that makes them hurt women and children. And win, lose or draw, the score doesn’t make a man beat a woman. Patriarchy does.

Whether England is the home of football or not matters little to women and children whose abusers make home hell after major football games. It is a hell that decreases by 5 percent during the 2-hour duration of the game, but that starts increasing and peaks about ten hours after the game, researchers at the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance found. They examined eight years of call and crime data from Greater Manchester police, correlating with the timing of almost 800 games played by Manchester United and Manchester City between April 2012 and June 2019. 

The researchers say that “all increases are driven by perpetrators that had consumed alcohol, and when games were played before 7pm,”; games which start during the day give supporters more time to drink.  

As useful as it is to know all of that, it is imperative to resist the temptation of thinking that simply moving all football games to evening start times will end domestic abuse associated with games. The starting time of games is the trees. We must stay focused on the forest: patriarchy.

Abuse “doesn’t happen by appointment. It happens all year round – it is a choice a perpetrator makes, stemming from power and control, from gender inequality, which misogyny and patriarchy helps perpetuate.”

Moreover, researchers from UK’s Lancaster University who analysed domestic violence figures from England’s games in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cup found that incidents of domestic abuse were 11 percent higher the day after an England match.

More alarmingly: incidents of domestic abuse rose by 38 percent when the England team lost and increased by 26 percent where England won or drew, compared with days when there was no England match.

Their findings were used in a photo campaign by the UK’s National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) with the tagline, “If England gets beaten, so will she.” The NCDV’s campaign extended to other nations in the World Cup, including Switzerland, Japan, Belgium and France and showed images of national flags imprinted onto women’s faces in blood.

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During the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, cases of intimate-partner violence against women rose by an average of 38 percent and 25 percent respectively when Colombia played. And by nearly 50 percent during the 2015 Copa America, compared to days when Colombia did not play. Colombia won third place in this year’s Copa America tournament.

Abusive men will abuse you whether their team wins or loses or draws, whether there is a lockdown or not, because it is about the abuser and about the ways patriarchy enables and protects his belief that he is entitled to control you.  As lockdowns are being lifted in Europe, there has been a resurgence of deadly violence against women as abusers experience a "loss of the control" they enjoyed throughout the coronavirus lockdowns.

And football authorities--corrupt, male dominated, enraptured by sponsorship deals with alcohol companies--have been woefully awful at confronting that toxicity. Much as schools and universities are loathe to confront their star players, football authorities pay lip service to “kicking out” everything from racism to domestic violence to homophobia but it is all too often a kicking that is performative and as weak as Harry Kane’s penalty against Denmark in the Euro semi final. 

The Italian League has been condemned for failing to act decisively enough against sexism, racism and antisemitism--not just from fans but by club officials. 

On the pitch, off the pitch, from managers to players to the men who support them: patriarchy fuels a dangerous cocktail of toxic masculinity in football as well as many other men’s sports. Football tournaments did not invent patriarchy. The latter drives the men’s game and the harm it takes home. 

And the abusive behaviour of superstars like Giggs must be directly connected to the behaviour of abusers in the stands and in the pubs who watch them. The through line is patriarchy. So egregious is the enabling and protection of such superstars in Brazil, the BBC claims “The Brazilian Football Association could likely field an entire team of active players accused or convicted of crimes related to gender violence or sexual assault.”

Perhaps the most egregious: former Flamengo goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes de Souza, who served less than a third of a 22-year sentence for ordering the murder of a former lover,  Eliza Samudio, who was strangled and her body chopped up and fed to dogs. Bruno continues to earn a living playing football for Rio Branco in the northern state of Acre.

"Clubs are organisations that can speak to the people a lot better than the government. They help create a culture, so when a...football club...accepts someone found guilty of violence against women, it says to the Brazilian people that it's acceptable,” says Monica Sapucaia Machado, a professor of political and economical law and specialist in women's rights.

In Argentina, two players with one of the country’s most known clubs--Boca Juniors--have been accused of domestic abuse--goalkeeper Augustin Rossi and Colombian forward Sebastian Villa. This in a country where the number of women killed reached a 10-year high under coronavirus lockdown in 2020.

There are countless more examples of abusive footballers. I have focused on just a few examples from the four countries playing in this weekend’s finals.

The abusive behaviour of superstars must be directly connected to the behaviour of abusers in the stands and in the pubs who watch them. The through line is patriarchy.

I watched my first men’s World Cup--hosted and won by Argentina--on television with my father and brother in 1978. I’d grown up thinking of men’s matches as something with an ever-present threat of violence: players ready to fight when fouled, to argue with referees, to dive and exaggerate the consequences of a challenge. Violence that is often mirrored by fans in the stands and after matches.

The violence that goes home with the men’s game is a wholly-owned subsidiary of patriarchy. You would be naive to think that such violence is limited to targeting women and children. It is what fuels the boos when players take a knee and the racist abuse yelled at Black and players of colour; it is what fuels homophobic chants that are brushed off as “jokes.” Misogyny is not patriarchy’s sole crime.

How when we know that at least 10 percent of any population belongs to the LGBTQ+ community, is there not a single out player in the men’s top leagues while the women’s game has a long history of openly gay and bisexual players?

Patriarchy. That’s how. 

It is time for men to learn from women how to play football.

If queer is the opposite of heteronormativity, the queerest--and joyously so--sporting environment I’ve witnessed were the Women’s World Cup matches in Montreal in 2015.

With teen fans at Women’s World Cup Semi Final between USA and Germany, Montréal, 2015. Photo: Robert E. Rutledge

The stands were full of outsiders: women with babies, teenage girls-- a demographic I rarely see in televised men’s games--with their faces painted in the colors of their teams and men there alone, all of us unburdened by the need to imitate a form of masculinity that the men’s game insists on as the price of admission.

There were no reports of abuse going home after the matches; no campaigns that warned that “If England is beaten, so is he,”; and the players on the pitch were there to play, not engage in bombastic flops and fake injuries. 

It is time for men to learn from women how to play football.

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Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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