Saturday essay: Hooligans, the product of a high civilisation

THOSE WHO have never stepped on English soil, and know the country only by the deeds of its soccer fans, have every right in the world to believe that the civilised society that produced democracy and Shakespeare's verses has declined to the edge of barbarism.

Indeed, the spectacle of hordes of drunken English hooligans attacking passers-by, charging adversary fans with sticks, stones and knives, engaging in ferocious battles against the police, smashing shop windows and vehicles and, at times, the very stands of the stadiums, has come to be an inevitable corollary of major international matches played in by England, and of many in the British league.

And yet the fact is that for anyone who lives there, England is a country exceptionally peaceful and well mannered, where the taxi drivers do not attempt to skin the unwary tourist, as happens often in Paris; where the shop clerks are not rude to customers who poorly pronounce or fail to speak their language, as happens often in Germany and the United States; and where xenophobia and racism, plagues from which no society known to me is exempt, are less explicit than elsewhere.

Among the great cities of the world, London is one of the safest. Women travel alone on the Underground in the middle of the night, and I can think of no quarter, even including Brixton, as dangerous for the lone foreigner as is, say, Harlem, or Clichy.

Moreover, hooligan violence has to do with football alone. No other sport or mass spectacle - from political meetings to the concerts of rock idols - has generated a similar destructive suppuration. On the contrary, I have always been surprised at the lack of rowdiness and vandalism that characterises large gatherings in England - where, for this same reason, the presence of security forces is usually insignificant. And where the (unarmed) police, moreover, inspire confidence, not fear.

How do we explain this curious phenomenon? Let us discard from the start the ideological thesis, according to which hooligan violence is a heritage of Mrs Thatcher's economic reforms, which have burdened British society with the deepest imbalances and pockets of poverty in Western Europe.

In fact, Great Britain has today one of the world's most prosperous economies; and, thanks to those reforms, which Tony Blair's government is deepening, unemployment has been reduced to a minimum level - about 6 per cent.

If poverty and the abyss between rich and poor were determining factors in football violence, then every week there would be real massacres throughout the Third World and a good part of the First.

But if the reason is not socio-economic, as the progressives would like it to be, what then is the reason why one of the planet's most civilised countries experiences this systematic outburst of barbarism, the phenomenon of football vandalism?

An interesting clue lies in the background and character of the English supporters who were arrested and jailed after the Marseilles havoc. What a surprise: one man, James Shayler - 100kg of muscle, beer belly and pirate tattoos on his forearms - seen by millions of television viewers smashing a Mercedes-Benz to pieces, is a most respectable citizen, who adores his wife and daughter, and helps old ladies at road crossings.

Neighbours interviewed by journalists declare in amazement that it is hard for them to recognise the aggressive beast who battered Tunisians in Marseilles on 15 June as being the same civilised neighbour they thought incapable of killing a fly.

Similar amazement was evidenced by employees at the Liverpool Central Post Office, on learning that two fellow workers, known to their superiors as punctual and diligent civil servants, figure among the drunken vandals sentenced in Marseilles, in a police court, to two months of prison and a year's exclusion from French territory.

The list of hooligans caught red-handed in the destructive orgy could hardly be more impressive: an engineer, an electrician, a railwayman, a fireman, a pilot - among other employees, students and skilled workers. We find among them no outcasts or jobless persons - those people on the margins of society whom a persistent sociological stereotype presents as the protagonists of these outbursts of blind violence.

In fact, we need no statistics to conclude that the average fan can hardly be fitted into the stereotype of the jobless citizen, thrown into unemployment by inhuman industrial restructuring, scraping a survival living only thanks to social security.

A person in this situation lacks the basic resources that allow the hooligan to do what he does: to move about in trains, planes and buses to different European cities, to buy expensive stadium tickets, and steep himself in litres of beer. Even a hooligan must pay for the alcohol that allows him to short-circuit all the governing mechanisms civilisation instills into the individual to inhibit him from giving free rein to his instincts and passions, and constrain him to act according to certain norms and dictates of reason.

It is not the victims, but the beneficiaries of so-called civilisation who make up the bulk of these barbarous hordes who sow violence around the stadiums and burn the stands. Their ranks offer cover and fertile ground for the designs of eccentric and unbalanced personalities, Fascistic groups, sadists, desperadoes. But these are the exception, not the rule - the flies attracted to the sore, not the infection that causes it.

In fact, the phenomenon of football violence is not of frequent occurrence in poor or underdeveloped countries: in these lands violence is less frivolous, more elemental. It is found in countries with high standards of living and civilised customs which can afford their citizens, bored of the routine and inflicted by civilised life, the luxury of letting themselves go now and again.

This habit of indulging in the excesses that are forbidden in private life has a counterpart in primitive cultures, with their ceremony of potlatch, and in the carnivals of the Christian Middle Ages, which authorised the citizen to do what he never otherwise would do or think he ought to do, breaking his habitual norms of conduct, and for a few days obeying only the whims of his most hidden instincts.

Freud explained that civilisation is a mutilation which the civilised person never wholly accepts, so that he is always, unconsciously, trying to recover his wholeness, though this may endanger his social existence. And Georges Bataille maintained that the raison d'etre of literature was to enable man to experience - in fictions - all of what he had renounced in order to make community life possible.

It is along these lines that we must understand the irrational brutality of the English hooligans. Privileged citizens of a society which through a thousand years of history has been steadily reducing the precariousness, despotism, helplessness, poverty, ignorance and rule of brute force in human relations that are the invariable norm in primitive societies, they now find themselves bored, and yearn for what they have lost: uncertainty, risk, life lived as instinct and passion.

So from time to time - from match to match, championship to championship - thanks to the golden beer and the anonymity offered by dissolution in a collective entity, the mass of fans, they revert to tribalism, trotting out the muzzled savage who had never ceased to dwell within them, and for a while allow him to wreak all the havoc he dreamed of, as if in amends for the monotony of their jobs, professions and family routines.

The hooligan is no barbarian: he is an exquisite and terrible product of civilisation.

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