LM Comment
  5:17 am GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar
18 June 1998

Hooliganism: a political football/06-18-98

Duleep Allirajah questions the obsession with hooliganism

When England fans rioted in Marseilles on the eve of England's World Cup clash with Tunisia it seemed as if the spectre of football hooliganism had returned to haunt the nation. Tony Blair was quick to denounce the fans: "They are complete disgrace to England and whole country will unite to condemn them". Blair also urged employers to sack workers convicted of football offences in France. As TV pictures of England fans burning a Tunisian flag were relayed there were certainly echoes of the Heysel stadium riot in 1985 which resulted in 38 Italian supporters of Juventus being crushed to death. So what exactly do the events in Marseilles signify? Is New Football - supposedly post-hooligan, family friendly and gentrified - little more than a fiction?

No. To understand the events in Marseilles and the blanket condemnation of hooliganism, it is necessary to look beyond the broken bottles. The obsession with football and the bad behaviour of the England fans represents broader concerns held by the ruling elite.

Violent behaviour at football matches is not particularly new. Violence was common at games before the Second World War but no-one made much of a fuss about it. Nor is violence unique to England. Only last month there were pitched battles in Madrid between football fans and police as following Real Madrid's victory in the European Cup Final. The difference between England and the rest of the world is that football hooliganism has become a political issue over here. In the 1980s terrace violence became a focus for the establishment's sense of impending social breakdown and its fear of the masses; today it is the focus of a different set of fears.

The difference between the discussion about football hooligans in the 1980s and the breast-beating taking place today comes from the relative importance of both football and nationalism. In the 1980s football was in decline with attendance falling, and flag waving nationalism was in rather better shape as the popular support for the Falklands War illustrated. Today however, English identity is much less clear, and the concern about football hooliganism reflects this confusion.

Nationalism has suffered the fate of institutions like the Church of England, the Tory Party and the House of Windsor: all of which are seen as obsolete institutions based on obsolete and unconvincing ideologies. Football, by contrast, has never been more popular. Whereas Thatcher didn't much care for football, Tony Blair professes his support for Newcastle United. Questions are asked in Parliament about Gazza's omission from the England squad. Football has, moreover, become an arena for Government social policy as the establishment of a Football Task Force illustrates. When Nick Hornby's book 'Fever Pitch' became a best-seller and was made into a film, it was proof that the chattering classes too had become converts. This 'gentrification' of football has led right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens, one of the dwindling band of football haters, to ask despairingly "Why do literate, middle class people sigh and simper and adopt the language and passions of the terraces?". The answer is that football has become the new politics - a surrogate for the collective causes and institutions of the past. Football has become a vehicle for passions, creativity, and ambitions that would have otherwise been invested elsewhere.

In this era of New Football, the old nationalist passions attached to supporting the England team are no longer acceptable. But however much the press rants on about the 'jingoism' and 'xenophobia' expressed by the England fans, this is not the reason why they have received so much condemnation. The New Football rejects fans that act like macho, aggressive, stereo-typically male fans: and whenever there is a whiff of violence, a twenty-something bloke with a bottle becomes a convenient scapegoat for those who wish to emphasise, yet again, how different 'caring England' is to the past. With politicians and the press almost willing England's fans to become a national disgrace before they even set foot on French soil, it is hardly surprising that the fans lashed out; and such is politicians' contempt for young men like these, the restrictive and draconian measures imposed to force the fans to behave could only be expected.

The events in Marseilles should be seen in the context of a society where, in Peter Hitchens' words, we worship "the God of the Goalmouth" and where at the same time national identity is so confused. Why else was a series of drunken skirmishes, which actually led to only 36 arrests, treated as a national tragedy? Because England fans had not simply fought with French police and Arabs but had unwittingly intervened in the re-branding Britain debate. The Daily Express recognised this much when it declared: "This is a nation struggling with its identity. While the Government encourages us to think "Cool Britannia", we are in danger of allowing these hooligans to define our national character for us" (17 June). One after another respectable commentators lined up to apologise for being British. Polly Toynbee in the Guardian was typical: "Forget Lord Tebbit's patriotic test, to be decently English now is to be ashamed of it" (17 June). By contrast the Scottish fans, who dress up like clowns and cause no trouble, are held up, not just as model football fans, but as models of a new tolerant patriotism.

The orgy of liberal guilt and moralising belies the fact that the violence in Marseilles could have been a lot worse, when the demonisation of English fans prior to the tournament and the racial tension in between Arab immigrants and French police is taken into account. But in the race to provide the most damning condemnation of the England fans, a rational explanation for their behaviour appears to be the last thing on any social commentator's mind.

Join a discussion on this commentary

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk