Putting the Boot In
Football has had something of a rough time of it lately. The deaths in Bradford and Brussels resulted in much talk, most of it uninformed, and even some action. Newspapers have editorialised about the malaise afflicting “our national game” and politicians from local councillors to prime ministers have put in their twopence worth.
The violence is by no means confined to British supporters. In May, when China was eliminated from the World Cup by Hong Kong at a game in Peking, spectators pelted players with bottles and vandalised cars and buses. Thirty policemen were beaten up, and over one hundred people arrested. One local bureaucrat blamed the violence on “the lack of education and discipline among a portion of the younger citizens”.
Football violence is seen by those in authority as a problem which they must now do something about. The solutions suggested range from identity cards and banning away supporters to closing down stadium bars and such progressive ideas as the restoration of corporal punishment. Nobody can seriously believe that the root cause of football violence is supporters getting drunk once inside the ground. It is, admittedly, true that there would be no violence at empty football grounds, but no doubt determined supporters would manage to fight elsewhere. In the past, police, especially on the continent, have allowed ticketless supporters into supposedly all-ticket matches, rather than have them wandering around town causing trouble.
It is a truism to say that football violence is really a social problem, that it just happens to be football—rather than, say, cricket or rugby—that the hooligan element have fastened on to. Football violence is often seen as just the response of the poorest sections of the working class—the young of the inner cities, unemployed or in desperate dead-end jobs—to the frustration and emptiness of their lives. It provides them with excitement, solidarity and a sense of identity.
But this violence is by no means only the work of the skinheads or the poorest workers. An article in the Observer (2 June) discussed the new brand of violent supporters, who wear smart, casual clothes and often sit in the most expensive seats. They look “respectable” and travel under their own steam, rather than in official supporters’ club trains and coaches, thereby avoiding any special attention from the police. Unofficial newsletters provide tables of teams’ supporters and their reputation for “hardness”. Many of these supporters come not from the inner cities but from the supposedly more affluent suburbs and new towns. Often their parents have moved out of the cities, but support for the old team has increased. This is still, however, a matter of finding something to identify with amid the barrenness and unfamiliarity of the new home. It is somehow more satisfying to claim allegiance to Chelsea or Millwall than to, say, Slough or Milton Keynes.
The following day, in the Guardian, Jeremy Seabrook related football violence to the policies of the Thatcher government and, more generally, to changes within British capitalism. It is clear, he wrote,
“that the identity of the manufacturing centres of Britain, the function to which they owe their very existence, has been severely eroded in the past few decades. And the passionate feelings which have crystallised around football teams in these places are in large part the most conspicuous popular reaction against the injured sense of place.”
As certain industries decline, he claims, workers fasten on to football clubs as something stable in their lives, lives which are being disrupted by forces beyond their control. Tory MP Edwina Currie responded that the Brussels violence was not “displacement activity but utterly amoral behaviour, deliberately fuelled by drink”, the work of “vicious thugs”, which had to be condemned rather than understood.
In yet another Guardian contribution (24 June), David Selbourne produced pretentious waffle which appeared to end by criticising the “Left intelligentsia” for refusing to face the truth of the violence seen in Brussels, which apparently shows where “British labour might be going” (whatever that means). Selbourne’s was certainly one of the least articulate of the academic/political commentaries on the Brussels events, which clearly reveal the dearth of ideas or the merest hint of originality among the defenders of capitalism.
Fulham chairman Ernie Clay once put things more simply and forcefully: “Football has treated its public like cattle, so it is no wonder they have behaved like cattle”. As capitalism treats workers like appendages of a machine, and thereby brutalises them, it is no wonder if some sometimes behave brutally.
It is sheer hypocrisy for the likes of Currie and Thatcher to condemn the events in Brussels while at the same time supporting the vicious and violent system in which they arise. The deaths in Brussels are as nothing compared to the carnage and suffering inflicted by capitalism every single day. The Bradford fire disaster, whatever its immediate cause, was certainly aggravated by the poor condition of the ground (there’s no profit in safety precautions) and by the locking of exit doors (to prevent people entering without paying).
It is often claimed that football is popular because it reflects such values as excitement, physical prowess, local identity and the desire for victory. But so, after all, did the Falklands War, with its rejoicing and its hideous jingoism. The rivalries and violence of the football field are a microcosm of the competitive inhuman society of capitalism.