Are football hooligans part of the game, or are they part of the nation?
I was about thirteen when I gave up watching football. The odds were long on me taking it up again, and, in fact, the odds turned out to be exactly 5000/1 – the odds on the enthralling spectacle of the Foxes’ 2016 premier league triumph. I tried, briefly, to keep up my revived interest in the sport. It proved to be an impossible task. The Euros were up next: 0-0… penalties… 1-0… all 120 minutes of it; an uninspiring return to footballing normality that meant my renewed interest in football was short-lived. As my interest withered, before it finally died, I managed to gather together some of my more unprofessional thoughts on the beautiful beautiful game.
England performed poorly at the Euros. I don’t know why they failed. I’m sure the left-back was criminally underutilised by the manager (or whatever). But there are, it seems to me, a couple of things that would remain true whether or not they contributed to the fiasco. Firstly, English footballers are overpaid. What? Never! Yes. They are overpaid. This is more than a bit obvious from me, but it should never be left unsaid that we live in a world where Wayne Rooney gets £250,000 a week to kick a football. Morality aside, the lunacy of such a wage is clear even from a businesslike perspective. Compare the return you get from Wayne’s imperfectly rounded and perfectly bald top; to the return you get from the England rugby team who recently whitewashed Australia on their combined weekly wage of £75,000 for all fifteen players.
There is another cliché to consider, an old adage from old BBC pundits which goes something like this: did they not have the weight of the nation on their shoulders? One wonders whether a the nation can actually weighs anything (and if it can, whether it is polite to ask) but whatever the scales amount to, might not that amount be the cause of their failure? If yes then you’d have to wonder why, given that our nation has experienced quite a few failures, we haven’t reset our expectations (or gone on a diet). Alas, this group of players were once again built up as the young team of bright starts wearing boots shiny enough to give Europe a good kicking. Maybe English players are held to a high standard, but it can be no greater than other european nations – the Frogs, the Jerries, the Clogs – who similarly press their players to perform.
Pressure, then? Well, whichever country it is, it’s still just kicking a ball. Pressure? Nothing compared to the stresses of the armed forces, the standards expected in the doctor’s surgery, or the scrutiny we place upon our politicians. These professions are directly accountable to the public, whereas the worst footballers can expect are boos from the stands. But maybe the fans that sit in these stands should not be overlooked. For, at the end of the day, as the saying goes, football is only a game – and it’s the fans that make it what it is. The fans buy the shirts and fill the stadiums and sing the songs, and many of them choose to live and often die with every victory and defeat.
So, having slowly winded our way though the pleasant enough alleyways of Marseille, we turn a dark corner and are, belatedly, face-to-face with the football hooligan.
The english football fan as english football hooligan is a stereotype, but one which somehow seems more appropriate than it would be if we were generalising about the fans of any other footballing nation. Why is this? Hooliganism is, of course, a part of the sport – there are Italian flares just as there are Croatian flares. But it is also a question of nation, for why else are some nations worse then others? Take the Irish. During the Euros, the Irish fans were videoed picking up rubbish off the street and even fixing a local’s bust tyre. Even their rowdier moments were glorious, as in their chant at rival Swedish fans which told them to: “Go home, to your sexy wives.” Typical of Shamus: generous with flattery and with a healthy amount of hidden self-deprecation. Statistically, some Irish fans (definitely not Shamus) must be shoneens who indulge in the hooliganism more easily associated with the fans of other nations. Yet the difference between the Irish and the English remain: the former are less numerous than the thugs who took on the Russians at the Euros, they are less frequent than the Chelsea mobs who smash up Italian cafés, and they have less ugly pride. There is an ugly pride in the English hooligan, and it be found in the fabric of their flags. Of course most English hooligans are driven by tribalism and alcohol; but there is an important and patented nostalgia, latent and misunderstood and truly beyond the pale, in the minds of some who fly the red and white flag of St.George.
What should we think of football? What should we think of the state of England? Nationalism is a part of our past. The empire was brutal and while the Scotland and Wales have managed to distance themselves from their heart-pumping history, the intangible gene that makes the English football hooligan that much ‘louder’, remains deeply entwined. It is perhaps easier for the English hooligan to tap into this gene then it should be. Many people seem to think of the British Empire as the English Empire, when it was, of course, nothing of the sort. It is often the case that the expectations of others shape you… and nobody likes the English. English hooligans have been allowed an easy run at misappropriating the historical crown of the lion and the unicorn for themselves and for the sport. During the Euros, some English fans were on the streets shouting: “Fuck you, we’re voting leave”. It wasn’t great that Brexit became associated with a little, angry red man who flicks his finger at others from behind a raised drawbridge. But it is a good thing that this man, and this minority, caught the headlines. It is a good thing, because it is not a new thing. The football hooligan has been around for a while – and now that we can see them more clearly then ever – we should take the opportunity to tell them exactly what we think of them.
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