The hate behind the game

June 22, 1994|By Bill Buford

WHAT IS it about football that makes its followers behave so badly?

By "football," I refer to the sport that people of all nations, except the United States, understand by that name: the one you play with your feet.

It is also the one that everyone, everywhere, except possibly in the United States, will be watching through July 17 as the World Cup of soccer is played in America.

And by the bad behavior of its followers, I allude to the game's century-long history of violence.

And as far as I know, no other sport has caused a war -- the "Soccer War" between Honduras and El Salvador erupted after a World Cup qualifying match in 1969.

I write as a student of the game's more hysterical manifestations.

Twelve years ago, I, an American resident in England, was about to board a train that was being systematically taken to bits by fans from Liverpool inside it. Tables, seats, a door, an overhead ,, coat rack, a toilet seat -- all were being hurled out, item by item, as panicky Britain Rail officials called for the police.

An elementary instinct of self-preservation prevented me from boarding the train -- I took the next one, on which only half the carriages were being torn apart.

But I had witnessed a revealing moment. While one part of English society might satisfy Americans' notions of how the British are meant to behave -- drinking Indian tea with milk in china cups while eating cucumber sandwiches on a Saturday afternoon -- another segment is rioting in the name of a sport.

And I, anxious that I was missing an important aspect of my hosts' culture, have been attending games ever since.

The violence, of course, is not the preserve of the English alone.

Over the past 10 years, there have been soccer riots in nearly every country participating in the World Cup.

I offer an example from the 1988 European Championship in Germany. The second week featured a game in Dusseldorf between England and the Netherlands.

The trouble was not between the English and the Dutch but between the English and their German hosts.

I had never met a German hooligan, and I wanted to. During a lull in a small riot, I crossed a police line and sought out a young man who had come from causing trouble.

He was about 20 years old, wiry and muscular and very alert. He was agile, primed for fight or flight.

There were some English supporters around the corner whom the German and his mates intended to surprise. He was so

preoccupied by this prospect that he didn't notice me as I approached him and tapped him on the shoulder.

There was then, across the features of his face, an intriguing metamorphosis. He turned, assuming I was a friend, saw that I was not, became puzzled, confused, until, slowly, he realized that I was an English speaker.

He cursed, spat into my face and dropped to the ground to pick up a stone that he clearly intended to crush into my forehead.

I did what any reasonable person would have done: I ran.

But I remained captivated by that instant, involuntary hatred.

Two years later I was in Sardinia for the 1990 World Cup and another match between England and the Netherlands.

Again, the prediction of terrible scenes of trouble came true. But this time it was between the English and their hosts, the Italian police.

The police, in trying to contain the English fans, resorted to tear gas, then dogs and eventually guns.

The fans, chased by hundreds of men in uniform, rampaged through the streets, breaking windows, kicking in car doors, in general, exhibiting the kind of nationalistic pride with which the English male has so consistently distinguished himself in his global travels.

This went on for a long time until, suddenly, something strange happened. The Italian police retreated.

It was a trick; the police were merely regrouping in order to ambush the troublemakers.

But none of the English fans understood. Instead, they thought that they had defeated the Italian police. In effect, they had defeated the Italian Army. In their collective fantasy, they had defeated Mussolini.

They began chanting "England!" over and over again.

It was a celebration of victory. That's when I understood what I was witnessing. These silly men -- 19 or 20 or 21 years old, despised at home, ridiculed in the press -- badly wanted an England to defend.

They didn't want Europe; they wanted war. They wanted a nation they could belong to and fight for, even if the fight was this absurd piece of street theater with the local Italian police.

What does any of this have to do with the sport? I still haven't found a gratifying one-line explanation. Maybe it doesn't exist.

Instead I offer these observations:

* Being a supporter of any sport is an act of micro-nationalism. It satisfies a need to belong -- to something. Soccer exaggerates this because it is played at an international level more often than other sports.

* Because it is organized around the principle of frustration, soccer exaggerates a crowd's behavior -- that quality of frenzy, the essential element in nationalism.

Soccer is structured around deprivation; a fan's experience is to wait and wait for a goal that in many games never comes.

Frustration, deprivation, denial. They are the essential features of the game which has its greatest moment when, against all odds, the ball, finally, hits the back of the net.

Bill Buford is editor of the literary magazine Granta.

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