Football hooliganism has flown under the radar in recent times, especially among the new generation of overseas supporters in the developing world. Native English football fans have a different history to content with – one marred by mindless violence centred around football matches, which peaked a couple of decades back with marauding battalions of fans invading continental cities during European match ups. The kind of wrong reasons football fans make the mainstream news these days, like last season’s controversy about Chelsea fans racially abusing a black man on a Paris train seem extremely tame in comparison to stories of casual war from the recent history of football like when Tottenham Hotspurs fans invaded the unsuspecting, sleepy industrial town of Rotterdam in 1974 after which 70 fans were arrested and more than 200 people injured.
In an era where institutions battling social injustices are increasingly tying up with football clubs in an effort to affect changes at the grassroots, it might be baffling for fans who watch games on TV to hear about clubs being handed out bans for violent behavior in the stands. In the early 2000’s, Ajax’s hooligan fans invaded the pitch in a friendly match against Feyenoord and it took the then Ajax manager Johan Cruyff, arguably the club’s biggest legend, spreading himself over a fallen Robin van Persie to prevent them seriously injuring the Feyenoord youth player at that point. Last September, 10 fans were arrested after they tore down hoardings following Arsenal’s Carling Cup win over Spurs. Four Polish fans of Slask Wroclaw were arrested following an attack on visiting Sevilla fans in Manchester in October in what was understood to be the continuation of a previous feud between the fans of both clubs. Instances where bombs were hurled, knives were wielded and sometimes even live rounds of ammunition were fired, involving large groups of fans were also reported in places like Chile, Turkey, Amsterdam and Congo among dozens of other places in the last year.
It is rare for mainstream media houses in England to report incidences of football hooliganism. This is primarily because stadium security has been increasingly tightened over the last decade with huge pre-game preparations especially before traditionally volatile derbies or inter-city rivalries. It is not often the biggest clubs that have the most active fan “firms”. West Ham United, for example, has the legendary Inter City Firm which has taken on and left fans of many bigger clubs like Manchester United’s Red Army, Chelsea’s Headhunters and even lower division teams like Birmingham’s Zulus and Millwall’s Bushwackers maimed and even killed. The 2005 feature film Green Street Hooligans is loosely based on the Inter City Firm. Hooliganism has moved away from stadiums in recent times to away fans ambushing local pubs or squaring off in areas removed from the public eye by mutual invitation, sometimes days before or after the games. The international appeal of the Premier League and the sponsorship implications mean clubs distance themselves from this violence in their names and mainstream journalists follow suit.
It would be naive to dismiss violence in football as scattered instances of English drunkeness. In the former Yugoslavia, Croatian fans of Dinamo Zagreb and Serbian fans of Red Star Belgrade clashed in 1990 in what later resulted in large-scale civil war with rival fans enlisting themselves as soldiers eventually leading to the dissolution of the state. In Poland, the fans of Krakow channeled violence at the football stadium and football matches became the pressure valves that finally blew to bring down the oppressive communist regime that prevented freedom of expression everywhere else. However, even the hardcore self-styled hooligans of Eastern Europe admit the influence of old-school English hooliganism on their ways despite most of these firms taking it to extremes that were never possible in the English law-and-order situation.
Part of the appeal of organized sports is the opportunity to fight without the shooting. Contact sports like football offer the vicarious thrill of being in battle without intentionally hurting anyone, usually. Especially in the modern era where two-footed tackles and high-boots are banned to reduce violence on the football pitch and other measures to make football cleaner and more family-friendly, it would be intuitive to assume that violence related to football would be on the decline . But for the most hardcore of local football fans nothing has changed, and watching the action from the galleries is not enough. Organized violence has a rich history documented from countries like the carnival football capital of the world in Brazil to the pot-smoking liberal poster-child of Europe, the Netherlands.
When socio-economic and political conditions are perceived to be bleak and unemployment rates skyrocket, angry young men sometimes take to the streets searching for a cause to unite under and fight against. Football provides them a cause, an easy identity which can be exaggerated into a “us vs them” narrative that spirals out of control once the violence starts. This is barely different from other causes like civil rights movements and anti-establishment protests, inciting the same amount of bewilderment and calls for strong government action from people who are outsiders to these particular groups. While mainstream media waxes eloquent about the beautiful game and the global goodwill that huge sporting events provide, the ugly realities that are a part and parcel of being grassroots football fans in cities with rich footballing history during hard times are usually swept under the carpet. Governments have fallen, dictatorships have been overthrown and countries have gone to war from flashpoints that arose at football stadiums. It truly adds to the mystique of football, that goals in a game have changed the course of human history!