Drugs, Violence, And Soccer: 6 Realities Of Hooliganism
Americans are slowly coming around on soccer, since most kids grow up playing it and it's a lot less likely to permanently ruin your brain than American football. But we'll never get why the rest of the world is so crazy about the sport that they fucking riot after every game (and before the game, and during the game ...).
Or, at least, that's the impression we get. It turns out this comes from a specific culture of mostly European soccer "hooligans" who are weirdly obsessed with what they do, to the point that it's more religion than fandom. We talked to Tommy Vinh Bui, a supporter of Mexico's Club America, and Dougie Brimson, a writer and fan of Britain's Watford F.C., to have them shed some light on the uniquely passionate (read: insane) culture of hooliganism, and in the process we learned a lot about society in general:
Team Rivalries Are Like Violent Family Feuds, Going Back Generations
As anyone who's ever snuck onto a rival school's campus to defile their mascot in some whimsically hilarious way can tell you, rivalries can make people act crazy. Tommy Bui told us about how soccer can turn otherwise normal people into bellowing lunatics:
"Wearing the wrong soccer colors in the wrong neighborhood will duly earn you a thorough thumping," which is British-English for "get your ass beaten inside out." "Rival jerseys can be claimed as trophies and brandished at games." Stolen jerseys are a hot commodity in hooligan culture, and, according to Tommy, "It's kind of an egregious mark of Cain to have your shirt or banner forcefully taken from you. And some of the more rabid [fans] have no moral boundaries." They'll happily steal shirts from elderly fans and women, and in case that's unclear, "steal" is a word here meaning "attack a total stranger and tear their clothing off."
That's why you need the giant tattoo as a backup.
In North America, most fans grow up watching sports on TV, going to live games with their parents, or playing Blades Of Steel on the NES, but for someone like Dougie Brimson, becoming a football fan is closer to being initiated into a gang. "I started when I was about 13 in the early '70s. ... It was like gang culture. The great attraction for us is that it was the first time you do a lot of things. First time you have a proper fight, first time you have a cigarette, first time you have a drink, first time you bad-mouth a policeman."
First time you wear a funny hat, first time you try to paint your face
and accidentally get high off the fumes ...
The gang comparison isn't an exaggeration. Football rivalries are fierce -- Dougie compared them to blood vendettas, in that they get passed down through generations.
"The history of rivalries, especially local rivalries, is so ingrained in the culture. It's hatred. Families have fallen apart because someone married a guy who supports the local rivals. I've told my daughter, 'If you ever bring a rival fan to my door, he can wait outside and I'll pack your bag.'"
The Shit-Ton Of Alcohol And Drugs Might Have Something To Do With It
We all know that beer flows like water at sporting events, and we're not referring to the fact that stadiums water down their beer to the point where it basically has the same alcohol content as a wet sandwich. However, according to Tommy, beer is just the beginning for hooligans.
"Substance abuse is the mainstay of the supporter experience. It's a real cocktail in terms of variety, but the staple of the arsenal seems to be PVC pipe cleaner. They huff it in prodigious amounts. It's cheap and readily available and can be easily smuggled in." As Tommy points out, the pipe cleaner is also one of the worst inhalants a person can expose themselves to, because, "It's handy for stripping people of [their] inhibitions and [any] sense of self-preservation."
And then the really hardcore fans use this shit.
In case you're not looking to get the same kind of high that your plumber enjoys, there's always cocaine, which has been described as "massively in abundance" among soccer fans. Cocaine is to some hooligans what chicken wings are to American football fans -- extremely prevalent, questionably sourced, and a key part of the viewing experience. "I've had very level-headed men talk to me about interest rates and the capital gains tax only to seconds later have blood trickle from his nose because of the copious amounts of coke he just snorted before kickoff," Tommy says.
That's not snow falling.
One interview-based study found that the combination of cocaine and alcohol fueled "the facilitation of extreme violence" and "the construction of a (hyper-)masculine identity," which, in addition to shedding light on the riotous nature of soccer fanatics, also helps explain the events of American Psycho.
Hooligans Are Surprisingly Well-Coordinated
But just to be clear, any bunch of rowdy fans can get so worked up that things get out of control. What we're talking about here is on a whole different level. For instance, rather than wandering around from bar to bar looking for a fight to start, hooligans actually coordinate their brawls using smartphones, as Tommy explains:
"The art of the brawl has become refined to near paramilitary-like exactitude. For instance, a horde of rival supporters attended a concert where someone from our firm was able to get an accurate head count and report back via a group text the exact location and state of inebriation they were in." Tommy's group was able to mobilize enough people to start a drunken parking lot melee within the hour. From knowing specific subway schedules in order to cut off a rival group's escape, to herding them down certain streets to box them in, hooligan ambushes are planned with surprising precision and efficiency. According to Tommy, "Fight participants are now capable of broadcasting brawls live [with] beat-by-beat commentaries [for] those who opt to support football supporters vicariously online. So, in essence, it's 'e-hooliganism.'"
If you're curious about what these fights look like, and don't pretend that you're not, they're pretty easy to find. They're the hooligan equivalent of cat videos, meaning they're poorly shot and impossible to number:
However, because organizing group ambushes and videotaping drunken fits of violent chaos that you helped start are both against the law, Dougie explained, there's been a technological arms race between fight-thirsty fans and the police trying to stop them.
"When the Internet started, it was used to organize confrontations. And then you started to see pictures and videos. The police caught on and started using these forums as well." As a result, a group of spirited hooligans would show up for a planned brawl and the police would be there waiting. "People would get arrested for stuff they'd done and talked about on the Internet. That side of things was on the decline by about 2000. Before that people didn't realize you could be traced and tracked. After that it switched to mobile phones."
"on my way. hit 3 Man U fans while txting LOL"
And so it will continue, until fans are coordinating brawls via holographic brain implants and the police have to employ a team of precogs in Fly Emirates gear to predict fights before they happen.
Speaking of which ...
Hooliganism Is Oddly Helpful To Police
According to Dougie, there's a big debate in England (two, if you count the national poll over whether they should try to trick America into thinking that every British person lives in Downton Abbey). Basically, the argument is over whether it's the police's job to put a stop to hooliganism, or if it is simply their job to enforce the law while the sport cleans up its own problem. It's similar to the debate over whether it's the responsibility of the Cleveland Cavaliers to make Cleveland less miserable. But the discussion in England is compounded by the fact that hooliganism actually offers benefits to the police.
And we're not just talking about those stylish hats.
"British police are some of the best in the world at dealing with riot situations [and] all of their training, all of their expertise, was developed through football. Football allows them to monitor groups of people through CCTVs; it allows them to track them through the country, to listen to them, to identity them, [and] convict them. And it happens at the same time every week: Saturday afternoon. Why would they want to solve that? It's the perfect training regimen."
While football fans definitely cause problems, they rarely employ extreme violence like others might, so corralling them on a regular basis provides valuable real-world experience without major risk. It's essentially the crowd-control equivalent of learning how to drive in a parking lot. Hooliganism also resulted in passing legislation that has helped control more serious issues, as Dougie elaborates:
"The police brought onto the books laws that would allow them to remove passports of people [whom] they suspected would cause trouble when England played abroad. They didn't need proof; they just needed suspicion. That law, which they swore at the time would only be used for football, is already being used to combat sex-trafficking and sex tourism."
And the actual fans who do make it abroad can always get arrested
by exotic foreign police departments.
Hooliganism also provides the police with a steady stream of funding capital:
"It provides [the police] with quite a lot of money. One of the big debates in this country is why local councils should be paying the police to deal with hooliganism when [football] players are making billions of pounds. It carries on, because it suits everybody. It's a huge issue."
The money is used to develop new anti-hooligan tactics and technology, which are later used to police the general population as well. And now you see the problem. It's hard to argue against laws that fight sex-trafficking, and Americans would certainly appreciate riot police who actually knew what they were doing. There's no incentive to put a true end to hooliganism, because then the gravy train (or, as they call it in England, the juice lorry) would come to an end and no one would get to play with any new surveillance toys. The police stay happy and the violent fans stay happy, and they'll both continue to the detriment of everyone else.
Even the horses are getting sick of it.
The Sport Becomes An Outlet For Political Extremists
In America, politics and sports rarely intersect outside of listening to a Dallas Cowboys fan talk about how much he hates Obama. But, as Dougie explains, fringe political groups exist that routinely recruit members from fans of a particular football club:
"The far right see a football game as an ideal recruiting ground, because you've got large groups of working-class blokes, many of them quite bitter. There are also groups involved in hooliganism from the far left. You can look at most countries where the game is played and find politics."
It's worrying when the guy who's against Nazis has to hide his face.
He's not wrong -- extreme political movements bleed into the sport. In Germany, 4,000 hooligans and neo-Nazis recently clashed with police while parading as "Hooligans Against Salafists," because the irony of protesting violence with violence is utterly lost on people who join neo-Nazi organizations. Violent Greek fans are motivated by economic uncertainty; Serbian fans disrupted a gay pride festival; fans clash along ethnic lines in Macedonia; Italian fans associate themselves with Mussolini; the Dutch have problems with anti-Semitism; and Russia and Poland have neo-Nazi fans that apparently never learned much about what actually happened during World War II.
"Every idea deserves a second chance, right?"
Even if you couldn't care less about football, you've probably read at least one story about black players being taunted with monkey noises or having bananas thrown at them. And while you could argue that the fans were merely concerned with the players' potassium levels, you would have to be a stupid asshole to do so.
"Well, I was hungry. So, there's that, I guess."
Both men we talked to insist those incidents are few and far between. "That's not to say they don't go on," says Dougie, "but the fact that when they do they become big news is testimony to how far we've come and how successful we've been [in weeding out racism]."
But that only touches on the larger problem, which is that ...
Hooliganism Is A Symptom Of Bitter Class Divides
Football in England, like football in America, is traditionally a blue-collar sport. It's even built into how the games are scheduled. Many stadiums are near industrial areas, so men can go into work on a Saturday morning, hit the pub afterward, and then go to an afternoon game. Wealthier people tended to favor stuffier hobbies like cricket, polo, hunting humans for sport, etc. That's changed over the years, but football's reputation as a pastime for the working class remains. And that's given rise to another reason to keep hooligans around -- sensationalism. Dougie explains:
"People like to label [hooligans] as stupid. [They] need to believe that, because it allows them to think that they're better than the hooligans. I think that's why the media's so fascinated with hooliganism, why they make such a big deal whenever something spectacular happens. ... It's the same kind of fascination that people have with shows like Jerry Springer, where you can watch people act like idiots and feel [superior to] them."
Except not even Jerry Springer would use the death of 96 people to push an agenda.
Now, your first thought is probably, "Of course people think hooligans are idiots. They're going around smashing property, beating each other up, and stealing people's clothing. Those are things that idiots do." But here's the unspoken message that always gets sent:
The lower classes love football;
Violent drunken assholes love football;
The lower classes are violent drunken assholes.
So, the photos and videos of out-of-control hooligans serve as a powerful piece of rhetoric all across Europe. In Scotland and Ireland, hooligans are divided along religious lines, whereas in Spain, the divide is political. Sensationalizing hooligans as a bunch of deranged hoods makes those divides even wider and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Headline from The Sun. If the finger yobs have come out, then truly the war is tickedy flombled.
Headlines like "Murder On A Soccer Train!" and "Mindless Morons" aren't exactly presenting a neutral, nuanced recap of the facts. It's similar to how crime rates are down but most Americans think they're up, because sensationalized crime reporting attracts more eyeballs. Playing up hooliganism as an epidemic works well in the media, but it winds up perpetuating the social divides associated with the sport.
In other words, soccer hooliganism becomes kind of an object lesson in how certain forms of cultural stupidity can persist across generations. Like so many highly visible social problems, the question of "Why can't society fix this?" is answered with another question: Are you sure it wants to?
Dougie is a prolific author and screenwriter, having written Green Street Hooligans, We Still Kill The Old Way, Wings Of A Sparrow, and much more. You can check out his work here. Tommy Vinh Bui is mostly mild-mannered and holds multiple advanced degrees but has no compunction coming at you with a shrimp fork for besmirching Club America. Further harangues can be found here and here. You can read more from Mark at his website.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Unsettling Realities Of Being A Landlord and No Peeing, Or Beer: 6 Realities Of Life Without Kidneys.
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