News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Thoughts on Hooligans and Thugs: Football's Most Violent Fans

"Well that's it for now. Did you learn anything? Probably not. See you later." These are the closing lines from the documentary Hooligans and Thugs: Football's Most Violent Fans. But actually, I did learn something from watching endless, to the point of boring, scenes of mob violence at soccer stadiums around the world.

It was interesting that the hooligans did not intend to hurt people, at least not seriously. In general, people gave a couple of kicks and moved onto the next victim. Once one person started kicking somebody, his friends joined in for a few dirty shots. And then they moved on like a cloud to the next victim where they swarmed and provided a similar drubbing. If anything, it looked like a video game with the object to score as many points in the shortest time as possible.

After the first shock of watching violent morons bash each other, the various mêlées started to take on a pattern, a very familiar one. After a few minutes I began to snicker, and then to laugh. I’d realized that the object was to incapacitate people, not hurt them seriously. A measure of this was that almost no one was carrying prepared weapons. The only implements of destruction consisted of junk snatched up onsite. People were ripping up the stands and throwing parts of the seats and other things at the enemy of the moment: police, bystanders, journalists, or fans of the opposing team. Seats and chairs were flying through the air as were water bottles, bits of wire fence, shoes, flags: this clearly is comedy, more the equivalent of a food fight and less mindless tragedy. And it’s quite different from smuggling in knives and black jacks and going at other people with injurious or lethal intent.

Also quite obvious was that most people didn't know how to fight. People took long crazy swings, gave gangly kicks. Rather than unify fist and body in the way that a boxer might, these people were tossing fists at the ends of arms which crumpled at the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder, and so forth. Most of the energy that they were trying to throw out was absorbed by their own bodies. The evidence for this, beyond the visible clumsiness of the pugilists, was that most people, after earning their beating, got up promptly and scampered off.

The fact that few people have died over the years demonstrates this. Massive numbers of people are involved, but serious injuries are few. The point is not to kill people, it's not even about revenge most of the time, it's simply about being a hellion, cutting loose, and having fun in the manner of a junior high school game of what my school used to call British bulldog. It's just about getting out and about with the lads, getting some exercise and getting off in a physical way, achieving that climax peculiar to sports and other physical exertion.

I suspect these mobs are populated by bored dudes holding regular jobs and who don't have much by way of hobbies. They're bored, lack much for exercise outside of lifting a beer stein to their mouths or wacking off in the shower. Here they get excitement, physical exertion, and camaraderie.

Once you've been in a fight with your friends, and your friends have stuck with you (as one sees time and time again in these videos), they become mates you feel you can really trust in a tight spot and with you have a visceral and spiritual connection, a low-budget edition of the connection that police and military people talk about. You're no longer a group of potentially and even probably fair weather friends. Friendship is no longer tentative or probationary; it's been tempered in “combat”, so to speak.

And I put worry quotes around combat because, after all, most of the soccer hooliganism seems to be more theater than anything else. Watching people bait others, shout and shake their fists, charge forward halfway to meet an enemy group and then back off to the safety of their own crowd, suggests that they are not really interested in hurting one another. What they want is the equivalent spicy naughtiness of a panty raid, a food fight, a hockey rink bout of socially approved fisticuffs.

If someone had killed a member of your family and you wished to avenge it, would you stand in the road shouting, railing your fists, charging halfway towards the object of your anger? Though this is what these mobs do, time after time, country after country. No, you would go directly for the person who killed your relative and try to kill him or her. You'd be of one mind about it, possessed. I've been in that sort of situation, although what prompted me was jealous love as a teenager. You’re blind with rage. You don't care if you live or die. You just want the other person dead. It’s ridiculous. It’s insane. And it’s not exemplified by the soccer hooliganism in this video.

Also noteworthy is the phenomenon of hooligans running so easily when pursued. They run because they enjoy being chased, not because they're cowards: in the same way that kids squeal with pleasure being chased while playing tag. The hooliganism in this video is not about cowards ganging up to feel safety in numbers when abusing individuals, it's about ganging up to maximize the ability to disperse oneself and avoid being caught once the police or the enemy crew start chasing you. It's no fun if you get caught for sure, or if you get caught too easily. It’s only fun if you get caught just once in a while for then it’s easy to maintain the façade of danger.

As a child I led a small collection of vandals, call it a gang if you will. We bought sling shots and went out and beaned construction workers and rent-a-cops around large construction sites. At one point, close to my home there was a huge drainage project being constructed which reengineered miles and miles of the local stream bed. The whole point of hurling marbles at the employees was to get them to chase us. I never hurt anyone. I wanted to be an annoyance. I took no pleasure in hurting people. As a member of this gang, I never even fought anyone. My friends enjoyed beating up people, but even then it was not about hurting anyone, simply about teaching wimps a lesson, making them stand up for themselves, getting them to act with self-respect. A sort of educational theater.

Per corollary, I would not be surprised if fans from opposing soccer teams in the UK or elsewhere, after the game, and after beating the crap at each other, could meet up in non-politicized circumstances (ex: overseas in Thailand) and be friends, respectful of one another for having the "guts" to beat each other up in public.

Furthermore, you'll notice that the crowds enjoy not only being chased by the police, but also charging the police. In other words, taking the game to their opponents.

The occasional excess where people get killed or are left in comas or are otherwise permanently debilitated is probably because some people cheat at the game. This game, like any other game, has people who will try to get unfair advantage. It is these people who come with weapons, explosives, fireworks, and who break bottles and attack people with glass and so forth. Of course you also get people who simply lose their temper and go berserk. But I would expect, although I have no forensic evidence to back it up nor any practical experience participating in soccer hooliganism, that it's probably not very common. That the occasional person being on the wrong end of real violence is what makes the news, suggests that the general tone of soccer hooliganism is playful. You just have to understand that people head butting, kicking and punching others can be a form of roughhousing that is recognized by both sides of the equation as playtime.

The pain of being struck violently is greatly overrated in the press, as anyone who's been a serial willing victim of violence (ex: boxers, martial artists, wrestlers) will attest. When the adrenaline’s running, pain functions as a measure of your tactical situation, your martial readiness, your mechanical functionability, and is not a determinant of whether you fight in itself. What matters is not pain, but are the eyes clear, are your muscles fatigued? Is your breathing relaxed and are you mentally cool and acute? Or are you charlie-horsed (temporarily incapacitated due to neural malfunction in your muscle tissue) and under stress? When people are that excited, they don’t feel much pain.

Anyway, I'm just trying to understand the phenomenon. I don't advocate it, not because it's politically incorrect, but because intelligent people surely have more interesting and productive things to do in their majority. They grow out of this stuff quickly. If you really wish to prove your manhood, get in the ring. That works fine, while guaranteeing you emerge in one piece and don’t have to spend the night in a jail cell.

Biff Cappuccino

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