Football mega-events have become increasingly prominent, influenced by social and mass media coverage. Hosting such events can require significant investment in infrastructure, equipment or security. They are often portrayed as drivers of development for host countries, facilitating improvements including sporting performance, public health, and trade and investment. However, financial projections can underestimate the funding required and overstate the potential advantages.
The security apparatus, specifically the policing of football fans and crowd management, frequently shapes the perception and lasting memory of these events. Meanwhile, event organizers and sponsors strive to enhance the “fan experience.” This dual approach reflects the often-divisive perception of football supporters: either seen as a disruptive threat to be managed and controlled or as a lucrative consumer base to be embraced and leveraged.
Crowd management and policing often shapes perceptions of football mega-events. Event organizers and sponsors strive to enhance the “fan experience.” This reflects the often-divisive perception of football supporters: as a disruptive threat to be controlled or as a lucrative consumer base to be embraced and leveraged. How are football fans seen and treated at major events?Joel Rookwood
The impact of international visitors and security measures on mega-event perceptions
The anticipated experiences of international visitors at mega-events can significantly influence the perceptions of host nations. For organizers aiming to wield soft power, shape media narratives, and maximize the commercial impact of such events, ensuring security, preventing disorder, and fostering positive fan engagement are crucial aspects of how these tournaments are experienced, managed, and marketed (ibid).
Football fans are often regarded and treated as a distinct demographic group. Unlike many other sports, football fans are typically segregated within stadiums. While this entrenched practice of spatial demarcation can help mitigate certain aspects of football-related violence within venues, it can also accentuate disorder and potentially fuel its escalation (Owonikoko & Rookwood, 2022).
Efforts to address football fan violence have led to changes in legislation and advancements in policing strategies. Instances of ‘football hooliganism’ and the accompanying media coverage, especially during mega-events, have spurred the enactment of new laws, notably in the U.K. and Italy. Consequently, authorities have been granted expanded powers in the surveillance, apprehension, and prosecution of football supporters.
The dynamics of fan interactions and security at football mega-events
Football fans travel widely to attend events, where they may be subject to unfamiliar cultural practices, security protocols, and legislative environments. As supporters interact, some may also engage in and/or be the victim of violence and disorder.
Modern football stadiums have become safer and more securitised spaces, with many renovated or even purpose-built for mega-events. Around these venues, fans converge at entrances and ticket checkpoints before matches. Locals often attempt to sell products, tickets and otherwise engage with or victimise fans around these locations. How these spaces and processes are managed by security personnel contributes to the overall perception of major events, their safety, and the fan experience.
Some recent high-profile events have been associated with security incidents. At the 2022 UEFA men’s Champions League final in Saint-Denis, thousands of Liverpool and Real Madrid supporters were subjected to dangerously inept policing and crushed into confined spaces outside the Stade de France stadium before kick-off. After the game, gangs of thieves attacked supporters as they left the ground, with police offering little protection.
UEFA and the French police falsely accused Liverpool fans of arriving late and using a mass of counterfeit tickets, a victim-blaming strategy reminiscent of the smears of the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy. Yet the dangerous containment of fans in Saint-Denis did not result in casualties, despite the violent and negligent policing, and largely because of the restraint of supporters and the collective memory of Hillsborough. Globally-networked and politically savvy fans in Saint-Denis demonstrated agency, using modern technologies to share video evidence online (ibid).
The fan experience: The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations
The 34th edition of the men’s Africa Cup of Nations is currently taking place in Côte d’Ivoire, which will culminate in Sunday’s final. Featuring double-header matches that pose challenges for organizers in securing stadiums and managing crowds due to the presence of multiple groups of opposing supporters. Segregation is seldom enforced.
During the previous edition staged by Cameroon in January 2022, a tragic stampede occurred before the round-of-16 tie between the hosts and Comoros at Yaoundé’s Olembe Stadium, resulting in the deaths of eight people and injuries to 38 others. Security officials directed fans to locked access gates, contributing to the crush, which was broadcast on television stations and by fans climbing over security fences. Cameroon’s sports minister and president of the local organizing committee for the tournament, Narcisse Mouelle Kombi, attributed the tragedy to ticketless fans, stating that 60,000 attempted to gain entrance to a game capped at 48,000 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Similar incidents have occurred in previous editions, including a stampede at the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana and disorder involving Cameroon fans during their game against Guinea-Bissau at the 2017 edition in Gabon, resulting in a fatality. Lessons seem to have been learned in Africa, particularly regarding entrance points. The organization and security at Côte d’Ivoire’s event have been largely effective, with no serious incidents of disorder reported thus far. Supporters are often aware of previous events and the perceived risks of attending games.
Research into the fan experience explores event attendance through improved engagement, safety, and convenience. Some scholars focus on efforts to retain and entertain supporters before and after games, encouraging additional interactions with sponsors, monetised as expenditure, and projecting through social media engagements. Others investigate crowd behavior analytics to enhance security and stakeholder expressions through electronic word-of-mouth impressions.
Fan parks set up in large public spaces at mega-events allow supporters without tickets to gather regardless of allegiances, watch games on vast screens, and participate in other forms of entertainment before and after matches. This summer, the UEFA men’s European Championships will be held in Germany, the country where fan parks were popularized during the 2006 World Cup.
The incidents in Paris and Yaoundé in 2022, as well as at UEFA 2020, serve as reminders that security remains a primary concern for football mega-event organizers and fans. Providing memorable experiences and opportunities to capture and share them in secure facilities without stigmatizing fans as hooligans yet deterring football violence can help create an ideal model of event management.
Football mega-events are significant global spectacles, often portrayed as catalysts for development but with underestimated costs and overstated advantages. The security apparatus and management of fan experiences play crucial roles, reflecting the complex perception of football supporters. International visitors’ experiences influence host nations’ perceptions, with organizers balancing security and fan engagement.
Despite advancements in stadium safety, security incidents persist, highlighting the ongoing challenge. Criticisms arise regarding security measures impacting the fan experience, with research exploring ways to enhance engagement and safety. Fan parks provide inclusive spaces for supporters. Recent incidents underscore the ongoing importance of security in mega-events, emphasizing the need for effective management without stigmatizing fans.
Rookwood, J., & Hoey, P. (2023). From The Anfield Wrap to Boss Night and the Paris Protests: Football, Politics, Identity and the Cultural Evolution of Fan Media and Supporter Activism in Liverpool. International Journal of the Sociology of Leisure, 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41978-023-00139-9