Comments, In Focus

Are football thugs extinct?

“Serious sport,” as George Orwell states in The Sporting Spirit (1945) “…is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.”


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Ben Stupples


Though this essay of Orwell’s was first published in the denouement of the Second World War, his cynical outlook on competitive sport and its environment, particularly amidst steadfast football fans, may still be regarded today to be a valid observation.

As Orwell mentions: “the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators.”

Football hooliganism emerged as a serious societal issue in recent English history during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Fans regularly fought before, during and after fixtures, equipped with any possible afflictive instrument in order to quash and conquer opposing fans: bottles, knives, iron bars, razors – even concrete slabs.

Bitter, though relatively harmless, rivalries that have always existed between football clubs (and always will do) subsequently erupted throughout this period, resulting in English hooligans becoming increasingly dangerous and disruptive to football.

On May 29th 1985 in the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool, for example, 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death – an event that led to the banishment of all English clubs from all European competitions until 1990 (with Liverpool being banned for an additional year).

Organised, fight-thirsty and mettlesome ‘firms’ of English football clubs such as Manchester United’s ‘Red Army’ or Tottenham Hotspur’s ‘Yid Army’ (notice their violence-evoking titles) were the advocates of football hooliganism and its destructive culture.

For some, indeed, the throng of violence on match-days became a drug: “I go to a match for one reason only – the aggro,” as ‘Frank’ – a 26 year-old lorry driver and self-confessed football hooligan from the ‘Red Army’ – declared when he was interviewed in 1974.

“It’s an obsession,” he explained, “I can’t give it up. I get so much pleasure when I’m having aggro that I nearly wet my pants.”

With their compulsive appetite for violence, hard-core hooligans such as ‘Frank’ can be considered by all those not involved in their unusual communities to be fanatics – the origin, incidentally, and ironically, of the term ‘fan’.

Due to the extensive police effort over the past twenty years to prevent football hooliganism, though, firms of clubs and their troublesome individuals are not so wide-spread today as they were three or four decades ago.

Some, however, still exist, and they still feed off that uncontrollable urge for violence: “it’s just like being a crack-head or an alcoholic,” as ‘John’ – a current member of Coventry City’s firm (‘The Legion’) – states; “you’re addicted to it”.

One senior official at one of London’s most prominent football clubs supported the existence of football hooliganism in modern society, too, when he told The Observer in 2010: “If anyone thinks it has gone away they are naïve.

The Internet provides an easy way to arrange meetings. This is gang violence that attaches itself to sport. It is naïve to think that football still doesn’t provide an opportunity for a ruck – it does.”

London, indeed, has witnessed over the past decade two serious incidents of football hooliganism between rival clubs: after Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur drew 3 – 3 in the quarter-finals of the F.A. Cup on 11th March 2007, a “running battle” (Metro) broke out between the clubs’ fans; at least ten people were stabbed.

And before the second round Carling Cup tie between West Ham United and Millwall on August 25th 2009, a man was stabbed as West Ham United’s ‘Inter City Firm’ and Millwall’s ‘Bushwackers’ renewed perhaps the most bruise-covered, blood-splattered firm rivalry in English football.

English football clubs, then, still provide a stage for hooliganism. Abroad, however, since England were threatened with expulsion from Euro 2000 due to the trouble caused by the country’s hooligans during the tournament (which prompted the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to apologise publicly for their behaviour), English fans have improved their reputation considerably.

As Ollie Holt, the Chief Sports Writer for the Daily Mirror, remarked on Twitter, for instance, during Euro 2012: “England supporters have been [sic] credit to country at this tournament. Scenes at Euro 2000 feel a world away now.”

In the first place, though, why are so many men (often between the ages of twenty to thirty) so beguiled by football hooliganism?

Anthony King, Professor of Sociology at University of Exeter, offers one possible explanation, identifying football’s male-dominated environment as an opportunity to form and define one’s sense of masculinity: “Through the support of a football team,” he argues, “the male fan affirms his status as a man (in the eyes of his peers and himself) and also articulates the nature of that manhood.”

On the matter of why football hooligans readily turn to violence, moreover, sociologists Eric Dunning, Patrick Murphy and John Williams recognise mob-mentality to be a significant factor: “at a football match… (hooligans) are able to act in ways that are frowned upon by officialdom and much of respectable society,” they argue.

“The game, too, can generate high levels of excitement and the focus of this excitement is a contest…between the male representatives of both communities.”

All the offensive chants fired towards opposing fans, and all the violent fights are thus attempts to subjugate the other side in mock-battle – an argument supported via the fact that football firms “march” to matches.

These hooligans – as Dunning, Murphy and Williams suggest – are usually men that are (or have been) “discriminated against” in work and school environments; they often lack a sense of identity and, therefore, though they probably would not admit it themselves, confidence in terms of their social standing in wider society, too.

Among football hooliganism’s inner circles, however, these men can climb up from the bottom of a hierarchal structure to be revered by the fellow members of their community.

With the use of violence as the primary means of achieving this status, though, the rise up the ranks in a hooligan firm is ultimately a destructive process – a notion exemplified by Jason Marriner, a former ringleader of the ‘Chelsea Headhunters’, who is currently serving a two-year prison sentence for playing a “pivotal role” (The Sun) in the violence following Chelsea’s game against Cardiff City in the 5th round of the F.A. Cup in February 2010.*

In comparing today’s levels of football hooliganism to the hysteria that spread throughout English football in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it may seem relatively non-existent.

It is, however, still an active force in football; an issue that still needs to be dealt with. Indeed, as one football hooligan recently remarked: “there’s always a group of twenty, thirty or forty young lads coming through who are keen enough to start up the new section of a legion.”

Even over the last few weeks, football hooliganism has purloined the headlines: after England’s 0 – 1 defeat to Italy in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 on 24th June, “disorder broke out” (BBC News) as one-hundred and fifty English fans attacked those of Italy.
Sadly, then, the fight to quell football hooliganism is still far from over.

However, now that its causes are mostly understood within academic institutions and football authorities, can a sustainable means be fashioned to combat its destructive consequences once and for all? If it can, perhaps George Orwell’s bleak observation of sports fans’ behaviour may not remain to be so pertinent to football in the future.

*In 2000, too, Marriner was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of “conspiring to commit violent disorder at a match between Chelsea and Leicester City.” (The Telegraph)

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