Alcohol in Football

It is a gender and inclusivity issue, with situations of ‘expressions of masculine identity’ the culprit

My earliest memories of the notion of alcohol relate to primary school and walking past the pub on the way home from school.  There was always this smell that was a mixture of cheap lager, detergent, stale urine and unwashed gnarly old men.  A local alcoholic was perhaps the town’s best known character; was there a person who lived in Beith (in Ayrshire, Scotland, for those from outside the goldfish bowl) who didn’t know who Amigo was?  I would sometimes walk by and see kids or dogs (actually, dogs were more welcome) standing outside pubs to speak to their Dad, telling him that his dinner was in the dog.

old man pub
old mans pub

What is inescapable is that the place of alcohol in my childhood culture was one of men in dark, seedy, dirty places spending the housekeeping money on making themselves smelly, aggressive and fat, not to mention inflicting misery on their families.  Alcohol was never prominent in my house either.  It’s not that my parents didn’t drink or even pretended they didn’t.  Simply put, it was just something that was kept away from children’s eyes and,consequently, it carried a mysterious and prohibited reputation.  Pubs were not a place for children to be seen – the law forbade it.

Recently, Scottish Labour Leader Jim Murphy made what seemed an uncalculated and almost throwaway remark about it being time that football fans were allowed to have a beer at the game (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/dec/21/jim-murphy-criticised-lift-ban-alcohol-scottish-football-matches).  They can do it at the rugby, why not the football?  In the days that followed, he was almost universally criticised by politicians, journalists and a variety of women’s groups and domestic abuse charities.  All of the criticisms put forth the image of a country where alcohol and its place in society were identical to that of my childhood.  That we hadn’t moved on.  That we couldn’t help ourselves.  That the state knows best.  That if our team lost, we’d go home and beat ‘the wife’.  That football stadia would resemble the 1980s image of the dirty old man’s pub with a bit of gratuitous violence thrown in for good measure.

All that was suggested was that if fans in many other countries can have a beer while watching football then perhaps the adults in this country could be trusted to do the same.  Sadly, there will always be people who abuse others just as there will always be people who abuse alcohol.  If there was a direct evidence of a correlation between access to alcohol in a football stadium and domestic violence then I’d be interested to see the data.  The following link explores the causes of domestic violence (http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/svaw/domestic/link/alcohol.htm).  That there is a correlation between alcohol and domestic violence is not up for debate.  But it’s a bit more complicated than it’s made out.  However, those who drink to excess and drink to abuse can do so in a pub or at home – it is not exclusive to football.  That there is a spike in domestic violence around Rangers v Celtic matches is not being disputed either (http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/old-firm-and-domestic-violence-link-confirmed-1-3104303).  However, this occurs in spite of early kick offs and ‘dry’ stadia.  These matches are a magnet for narrow-minded and insular bigots and have been for decades and to suggest that alcohol in the stadium would catalyse a rise in violent crime is to over-simplify and to misunderstand the nature of the occasion.

I have been to countless Anderlecht matches over the past few years.  I will often have a beer or two at one of the many bars in immediate proximity to the stadium beforehand in addition perhaps another couple throughout the match.  At no point have I thought ‘Whoa, this could kick off at any minute with all this beer flying around.’  I would also have a couple of beers if I went to a rock concert as well.  These are also events where people sing, jump around and drink beer.  And yet, nobody ever suggests that you could not serve beer at a Prodigy gig as the clientele are more likely to go home and start a fire or smack somebody up!

I couldn’t quite put my finger on where the difference in environment and attitudes originated until recently, in Monchengladbach, when the penny dropped.  At Borussia Monchengladbach, a lot of beer is sold.  There are also a lot of families at the games.  Parents with young children.  Couples of all ages treating the game as a day out.  An event to be enjoyed.  I look around bars and cafés in Belgium and a similar demographic can be seen.  Women and children are seen and welcomed.  The grotty old man with the piss-soaked trousers who frequented the local hovels of my childhood is almost extinct.  I think back to my days of working in tourist bars in Scotland and having to tell families on holiday that they couldn’t contribute to the economy by coming in and having a coffee or a drink because they had children who were not allowed to be in a place where alcohol was sold.  I received a lot of perplexed looks and distinctly remember one Dutchman, whose two girls looked under ten, saying “I’m not trying to buy them beer!”

kids in a bar
couldn’t have said it better
Beer at Dortmund
Beer at Dortmund

So what lesson can countries with heavily-restrictive licensing laws such as Scotland learn from this?  I would suggest that very few of the people in Monchengladbach that Sunday were ‘bona fide travellers.’  Firstly, relax licensing laws to allow families into places where alcohol is sold.  It is up to the families to decide if the establishment is appropriate for their children and not the other way round.  Secondly, and it is gradually happening, relax the times that alcohol can be sold within an establishment – never have I drunk less from having to “hurry up and get it down me.”  Thirdly, abandon the ridiculous notion that alcohol cannot be sold before 10am on a weekday or 12.30 on a Sunday – making something harder to get makes people want it more.  Fourth on my list would be to lower the age at which alcohol can be purchased to 16.  Again, the same argument applies in that making something out of reach makes it so much more glamourous.  The Belgian model of allowing 16 year olds to buy beer or wine reduces the likelihood of young teenagers having to have their stomach pumped because they stole their parents’ spirits and polished off a bottle.  It may seem counterintuitive but, as a teacher of teenage kids in Belgium, I can honestly say that they are far more indifferent about the notion of getting pissed at the weekend than their Scottish counterparts.  I’m not saying it doesn’t happen or that Belgium doesn’t have its own problems with alcohol, but there are far less kids spewing around park benches here and yet alcohol is much more readily available.  Go figure.

Then, and only in tandem with making football matches a more family friendly event (precipitated by heavily discounted child places and a minimum percentage of family-seats), can the likes of Mr Murphy propose a relaxation on alcohol consumption laws at football matches.  Until football matches are more representative of a more forward-thinking society in terms of their demographics, inclusive to all irrespective of age, gender or race/religion, then they cannot propose to introduce the customs of said society.  A quick look round Murrayfield during a Six Nations match and a colourful picture of men, women and children enjoying the match can be seen.  A glance around Celtic Park or Tynecastle on a Saturday afternoon and a very different image is formed.  So often is this portrayed as a class issue which, while it cannot be ignored, simplifies the issue so much as to miss the point.  It is a gender and inclusivity issue, with situations of ‘expressions of masculine identity’ the culprit. While society has evolved in its attitudes towards alcohol from the days of Amigo, only when football pro-actively reflects society should it benefit from its progressive liberalisms.

Celtic Park crowd
Celtic Park crowd
Ibrox crowd
Ibrox crowd
Kids at the game
Kids at the game

I’d be interested to hear from people who attend matches both in countries where it is allowed and where it isn’t.  Please post your comments below.