Red Card

What Is It About Soccer That Brings Out the Hooligan in Its Fans?

Soccer hooligans do not rampage the way they once did, but they do still romp and stomp to make you wonder what it is in the beautiful game that inspires such ugliness.

Christopher Furlong/Getty

While living in England in the 1980s, the American writer and editor Bill Buford did an astonishing thing. He embedded himself in that army of world-class sociopaths known as English soccer hooligans, attending matches with them, traveling with them, getting drunk with them, brawling with them and, finally, getting viciously beaten with them by truncheon-wielding Italian police at a 1990 World Cup match in Sardinia.

The magnificent book Buford produced from his experiences, Among the Thugs, endures as a cult classic among connoisseurs of sports-related violence. Or better yet, ultra-violence, because the things Buford witnessed would have fit neatly between the covers of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’s dystopian 1962 novella about a posse of English lads—known as “droogs”—who maim and murder out of pure love for “the old U.V.”

Soccer hooliganism, mercifully, has been defused over the past 30 years, thanks to self-policing among fans, better stadium designs, and the cooperation and pre-emptive efforts of the world’s police forces. Before this year’s World Cup, for instance, British authorities ordered 1,400 people who have been convicted of soccer-related violence to turn over their passports, preventing them from traveling to Brazil. And Argentinian police provided their Brazilian counterparts with the names of 20,000 supporters who belong to barras bravas—hooligan mafias that, in addition to brawling, control the sale of fast food and drugs inside Argentine soccer stadiums.

So far at this World Cup, their efforts seem to be working reasonably well. There have been only a few skirmishes, and nothing like the pitched battles Buford witnessed in the ’80s, when the violence of English fans got so rococo that hooliganism became known as “the English disease.” In an ironic twist, English supporters are now more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of hooliganism. On the eve of this year’s England-Uruguay match, hooded Brazilian thugs threw bottles and explosives into a Sao Paulo bar packed with English fans. After arresting 15 people, police confiscated daggers, brass knuckles, and explosives. And during the Argentina-Iran game in Belo Horizonte, police arrested two barras bravas along with 18 other Argentina supporters inside the stadium. The two barras bravas were forced to leave the country. Meanwhile, in the town plaza, arch-rival Brazilian and Argentinian fans were busy hurling insults and beer bottles at one another.

These dust-ups are similar to what happened in 2006, when I happened to be living in Cologne as Germany hosted the World Cup. The entire country got swept up in a delirious fever—it was widely noted that it was the first time since World War II that Germans dared to openly wave their black, red, and gold flag—and I found myself getting swept up, too. The game, when played well, is a beautiful thing to behold. Each half is 45 minutes of seamless action, uninterrupted by time-outs or commercials. To an American, it’s amazing—45 straight minutes when nobody tries to sell you anything. As a bonus, the World Cup is a genuinely global event that makes baseball’s “World Series” look like a lame provincial misnomer. The only blots on the 2006 tournament came in Dortmund, when German fans clashed with police after their team beat Poland; and in Stuttgart, when drunken fans, many of them English, rampaged through the downtown streets. Nearly 400 were arrested. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, just seven English fans were arrested, none for game-related violence.

As the English journalist Sean Ingle put it recently in The Guardian, “Here hooliganism, which was once considered a cancer, is now more like a cold sore; an irritation that flares up every so often rather than something that people feared could be terminal.”

As Buford learned in England and I learned in Germany, soccer inspires passions that make fans do strange things, from the horrifying to the amusing. In the latter category, Colombian fans celebrated their team’s first World Cup victory in 16 years on June 14 by giving the team’s coach, Jose Pekerman, more than 400,000 write-in votes in the upcoming presidential election. “It’s a little funny,” the diplomatic Pekerman admitted, “because football doesn’t have anything to do with being the leader of a country.”

But for every amusing World Cup story like this one, there seems to be at least one that infuriates. On June 19, an Englishman named Philip Delves Broughton wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times lamenting the gentrification of soccer, the way it has become “a wholesome cultural bauble.” Broughton wrote, “Longtime Chelsea fans now complain that games at their home ground, Stamford Bridge, once raucous affairs, have become as stodgy as a night at the opera.” Broughton added that his favorite moment during this year’s U.S.-Ghana game was not the artful goals but the sight of Clint Dempsey getting kicked in the face, and playing on—a blow that broke his nose, blackened his right eye, and left him badly bloodied. But the most cockeyed of Broughton’s laments was this: “The old frisson of hooliganism is gone.”

The frisson of hooliganism?

A frisson is a pleasurable shiver of excitement. Anyone who thinks there’s anything pleasurable about hooliganism for anyone other than hooligans has not witnessed hooligans in action. Broughton’s misplaced nostalgia reminds me of the laments I hear every day in New York City—about the high rents, the relentless gentrification, the hordes of tourists, and how much better everything used to be in the good old days. Well, I hate high rents, gentrification, and tourists as much as the next New York resident, but I don’t miss the deep grime, the loonies on the streets, or the crime. The thing about nostalgia like Broughton’s is that it buys blindly into the myth that everything used to be better than it is today. Muggers and murderers? No thanks. Soccer hooligans? No thanks. Re-reading Bill Buford’s masterpiece two decades after it was published, I kept thinking good riddance to these thugs. The lovely game of soccer—and the world—are better off without them. Because soccer hooligans suck. Period.