The Football Hooligan Menace That Shames Us All
Did anybody really think the hooligan problem in Britain had gone away?
Yes, it is constrained far more efficiently than it was in the heyday of hooliganism in the 1980s but the undercurrent of violence remains simmering, always ready to explode.
With grounds policed so well and the streets around them prevented from being the battlegrounds of old, games abroad, both for the national team and the leading clubs, are all too often the outlets for the kind of shameful scenes involving a mob of Chelsea fans on Tuesday.
The only thing really surprising about this abhorrent behavior was that people professed to be surprised.
There is a subculture of violence that’s an anathema to most American sports fans.
Growing up east of London in Essex I knew well-off middle-class teenagers who would spend as much time organizing a fight before an Arsenal game for the upcoming Saturday as they did on their university applications.
Later, as a crime reporter, I covered the trial of a bunch of Chelsea thugs arrested for hooliganism, some of them living in the stockbroker belt in Surrey and driving fancy cars to their cushy jobs when not beating the hell out of the young city traders supporting Spurs.
I also had to witness the swathe of bloody mayhem a small but vocal minority cut through Europe on various trips to the continent that had as much to do with brawling as it did with supporting. These trips aren’t cheap; the traveling fans need money for tickets, flights and accommodation and most have a terrific time. But that minority is still a presence in the bars in and outside the stadiums and on the way to and from the games.
They are the ones singing the insulting songs such as one heard on Tuesday in Paris, ‘Where were you in ’42,’ a reference to France’s surrender to the Germans during World War Two. It's not too hard to guess at the subject matter for songs during games against Germany or German opponents.
The fact that one of the mob that forced a black passenger off the Paris Metro and burst into chants of ‘We’re racist, we’re racist and that’s the way we like it,’ was privately educated at $16,000-a-term Millfield School just serves to underline that football has moved way upscale from its working class roots.
The politics of these people tends to be right-wing intolerance bordering on fascist. Untreated, it's a breeding ground for racism.
Football will do its best to try and paper over the cracks. Hooliganism isn’t good for business and, make no mistake, football is all about business at this level.
So Chelsea and the FA will huff and puff and some of the perpetrators of this disgraceful little episode will be named, shamed and banned, but it’s unlikely to prevent such incidents from happening again.
Nor is it the first time something like this has happened, it’s just the first time someone filmed it on their phone and sent it to a newspaper like The Guardian.
In recent weeks, both Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and West Ham co-owner David Sullivan have been harangued by their own fans in intimidating, even menacing situations that surely must have left them feeling uneasy.
And who could blame Alan Pardew leaving for the welcoming arms of Crystal Palace recently after taking the brunt of months of virulent abuse at Newcastle?
Walking back to the tube station after watching West Ham at home just before Christmas, a group of Leicester City fans marched down the middle of the road shouting insults at opposition supporters. There were ample police officers but the atmosphere was still tense.
Yet in the two years I had a season ticket for the Los Angeles Galaxy there was not a single moment when I felt unsafe or intimidated in any way. Sure, the crowd wasn’t as passionate or as loud, but neither was it uncouth or inappropriately partisan. I certainly didn’t detect any racism.
The truth is that this isn’t just football’s problem, it’s society’s problem, and until we get to the root of it, incidents like the one on the Paris Metro this week are going to keep happening.