Why We Riot: How Fans Turned an Egypt Soccer Match Into a Bloodbath

A day at the stadium turned into a deadly riot. Jeff Wise dissects the science behind sports stampedes.

The soccer mayhem that killed 79 in Port Said, Egypt, on Wednesday was horrific enough. But it was given a grimly ironic twist by the plain fact that the victims died attending what should have been a pleasurable leisure activity. In its wake lies the obvious question: what turns a crowd of normal people into a seething cauldron of life-threatening violence?

The question, unfortunately, is one that must be asked all too often. Sports rioting is an almost regular occurrence around the globe. Here in the United States, we’ve experienced the rioting in Boston that followed the Celtics’ victory in 2008 and in Los Angeles following the Lakers’ victory in 2009. In 2002 Ohio State students went on a rampage after their football team defeated archrival Michigan. Sporting events are now a leading cause of riots.

In the wake of all this chaos, psychologists have labored to understand the root causes of such violence and have been able to identify some of the crucial factors that play a role in events like the Port Said riot.

Foremost among them is stress. During times of rapid change and uncertain outcome, as with Egypt during this troubled postrevolutionary era, the mass of society is placed under enormous psychological stress. Like magma seeping up through geological faults, this emotion can explode in unexpected ways. One is mass hysteria, like the epidemics of koro that periodically struck China over the last century during times of political and social upheaval. (A man afflicted by this syndrome becomes convinced that his penis is shrinking into his body, and preventing that outcome can wind up doing real damage.)

Mass stress can also turn crowds into deadly stampedes. One of the worst mass fatalities during the Luftwaffe’s assault on London started with a queue of civilians seeking shelter in the Bethnal Green Underground station. When a nearby antiaircraft battery began firing, the crowd jostled forward, and a woman carrying an infant stumbled at the top of the stairs. More fell on top of her, causing a chain reaction that toppled hundreds. Amid the sound of firing, the screams of those being crushed to death went unheard; those in the back continued to push forward. In less than 20 minutes, 173 were killed. Ironically, not a single bomb had fallen. During Wednesday’s soccer riot, a significant portion of the fatalities reportedly were not due directly to violence, but rather to a stampede among those trying to escape.

Then there is tribalism. We are fundamentally social creatures, and in a time of social turmoil, humans take great comfort in the support of a communal bond. Indeed, in his new book The Social Conquest of Earth, legendary sociobiologist E.O. Wilson argues that it is mankind’s predilection for forming altruistic groups that has allowed our species to wipe out all the other upright-walking apes and dominate the planet. While once this tendency helped our ancestors form effective groups of hunters and warriors, today it plays out in our passionate and yet utterly arbitrary devotion to sports teams. “People around the world today,” he writes, “growing cautious of war and fearful of its consequences, have turned increasingly to its moral equivalent in teams sports. Their thirst for group membership and superiority of the group can be satisfied with victory by their warriors in clashes on ritualized battlefields.”

The downside of altruism is that closely bonded communities also tend to be more closed off to outsiders. It is no coincidence that the most racist neighborhoods are often also described as tight-knit. And when the fervor of fandom is whipped into violence, our ancestors’ battle instincts are only too easily brought to fore.

Compound all that with testosterone, and watch out. The vast majority of sports riots are initiated by fans of the winning team and usually on their home turf. Jerry Middleton Lewis, a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State University who has studied sports-fan violence since 1960, dubs this type of incident “celebrating riots.” In his book Sports Fan Violence in North America, he writes, “The typical celebrating sports riot is located either on the playing field or the court after the winning of a championship.”

Why? Psychologists have long understood that spectators whose teams win experience a spike in testosterone, a hormone associated with aggression, while those whose teams lose suffer a commensurate plunge in the hormone. Researchers at the Violence Research Group at Cardiff University conducted a survey of rugby supporters entering and leaving a professional soccer venue in Wales and found that fans whose teams had just won described themselves as feeling more aggressive than losing teams’ fans did.

The testosterone effect is especially strong when teams with a long history of fierce opposition play each other and when the game in question is particularly close. The Port Said riot took place after a game between historic rivals Al-Masry of Port Said and Al-Ahly of Cairo. The violence erupted after Al-Masry came from behind with a string of goals and won with a final score of 3–1. The hometown supporters flooded onto the field, attacking the other team’s players and its fans with knives and clubs.

And where were the police during all this? In general, their presence often intensifies the problem. In Europe, where soccer-fan violence is a way of life, serious academic study of the phenomenon has been going on for years. In 2005 researchers at the University of Liverpool School of Psychology investigated fan behavior during an international competition in Portugal. The study’s key finding was that the style of policing will determine the level of violence. Researchers found that the most effective approach is to deploy officers dressed in normal patrol uniforms in a low-key manner with reinforcements wearing riot gear nearby but deliberately kept out of sight. Plainclothes officers should be available for deployment to potential trouble spots to discreetly keep order. The idea, in essence, is to prevent the security forces from sparking the very violence they are intended to prevent. Students at Virginia Commonwealth University who participated in rioting after their loss of last year’s NCAA basketball championship stated that just seeing the police waiting in riot gear was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At Port Said, in contrast, the policing approach was wholly ineffective. Security was unusually lax, with fans being allowed to bring knives into the event. When the violence broke out at the end of the game, the police remained strangely passive; in videos, they can be seen standing around doing nothing while violence rages nearby. There has been speculation that the poor policing was intentional, that the government intended the crowd to riot out of control as punishment for the past behavior of unruly elements. If true, this proved to be a spectacularly ill-considered decision.

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As horrifying as sports riots can be, and as shameful for those for whom they undermine the pleasure of athletic triumph, they do generally share one benign feature: unlike politically motivated riots, they tend to be short, running their course in a few hours or so. Unfortunately in the case of the Port Said incident, the two types of mass violence are not entirely separable: public outrage at the failure of the police to prevent the sports riot has spawned political brawling that not only continues, but threatens to spin off into another crisis all its own.