Offside, 30 May

Football hooligans disgust and frighten us - but they fascinate us too.

Duleep Allirajah

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The British embassy in Tokyo has produced a leaflet advising local shopkeepers that fat noisy Englishmen are not necessarily football hooligans.

‘You might be frightened by their big bodies and their large numbers’, says the leaflet, ‘but please don’t view them as a threat’ (1). The Japanese are advised to memorise a few handy English phrases, such as ‘England are a great team’, to help bridge the cultural divide. (Why do I think that’s asking for trouble?)

The perception that football hooligans are alien and dangerous creatures is not just confined to Japan. In Britain the spectre of hooliganism haunts the public imagination, inspiring a mixture of fear and curiosity. As most of us have little direct experience of hooliganism these days, TV documentary-makers are seemingly on a mission to educate the British public about the secret life of soccer thugs.

Channel 4’s Football’s Fight Club was a kind of I Love Rucking nostalgia programme, complete with retro soundtrack and veteran hooligans reminiscing about ‘tear-ups’, codes of honour, and terrace-fashions. (My favourite hooligan was the one who, having renounced violence to become a priest, now sports the bizarre combination of Stone Island jumper with dog-collar).

What struck me as I watched Football’s Fight Club was that, while policemen look younger these days, hooligans just seem to get older and fatter, particular when you see the footage from the 1980s of skinny teenagers in Pringle jumpers running amok. Whereas hooliganism in the 1970s and 80s was primarily an adolescent phenomenon, today it is largely the preserve of portly forty-something hoolidads. I expect they’ll be trashing day centres and dial-a-ride minibuses in 20 years time.

BBC2’s Hooligans series was an altogether more serious piece of documentary-making, using hidden cameras to reveal the lurid underworld of contemporary hooliganism. ‘The multi-billion-pound football industry tries to present only the glamorous image of the beautiful game’, say the makers of Hooligans, ‘but there is an ugly side to the picture – a picture which the football authorities would rather was kept hidden’ (2). Cue footage of Millwall fans involved in running battles with the police, hooligan gangs roaming the streets looking for like-minded thugs to fight, and ‘top boys’ in pubs calling rival thugs on mobile phones to organise clandestine punch-ups.

Compelling viewing certainly, but you have to ask what purpose these hooligan documentaries serve. I mean, Millwall fans involved in a bit of argy-bargy? Tell us something we don’t know! Two years ago BBC journalist Donal McIntyre used hidden cameras to expose a group of Chelsea hooligans (who seemed to spend most of their time boasting about their past exploits rather than actually fighting). Far from being a scoop, the claim that football violence never went away but has just been driven underground is the well-worn refrain of countless newspaper articles and National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) press statements.

Unlike Football’s Fight Club, in which the hooligan footage was presented within a pop history framework, the makers of Hooligans made little attempt to situate football violence within any social or historical context. Rather, it was the very act of watching illicit hooligan action through secret cameras that gave the programme its voyeuristic appeal. This was not so much investigative journalism as hooliporn. Football hooligans disgust and frighten us – but they fascinate us too. The documentary-makers would never admit it, but there is a certain gangster chic about these designer-clad men of violence. How else do we explain the fact that Hooligans attracted two million viewers?

‘Foreign Fields’, the last programme in the Hooligans series, featured the Irriducibili of Italian club Lazio and the Barras Bravas of Argentina’s Boca Juniors. The footage of mass pitched battles between supporters and riot police in both these countries really put the small-scale skirmishes of the English hooligans into perspective. Football violence may still exist in this country but English hooliporn is positively soft-core compared to the hot continental action.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) ‘You might feel frightened by their big bodies…’, Guardian, 28 May 2002

(2) Undercover with ‘the firm’, BBC News, 10 May 2002

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