The Fury of the Fans: Bill Buford, Among the Thugs, and the World Cup

Wall of police, Railway Tavern, Liverpool Station. Photo taken March 2007 by Salim Fadhley used under a Creative Commons license.
Wall of police, Railway Tavern, Liverpool Station. Photo taken March 2007 by Salim Fadhley used under a Creative Commons license.

This Sunday, roughly a billion viewers will tune in to the World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina. I know where I’ll be at kickoff for what is unquestionably the planet’s biggest sporting event: in front of a large television screen, cold beverage in hand, joining one-seventh of my fellow humans of Earth in watching the quadrennial footie party’s zenith. To prepare for the greatest show on turf, I revisited my favorite book about the beautiful game, Among the Thugs, one of the more unsettling works about humanity’s capacity for ugliness.

I first read Bill Buford’s masterwork in the early 1990s, back when I knew nothing about soccer – or life in England, for that matter – but I was morbidly fascinated by the rise of hooliganism, the wonton destruction ostensibly tied to a sport. For those who only know today’s global big-money made-for-TV game, it was a different thing altogether during the 1970s and into the early 1990s. Angry, intoxicated, (primarily) working-class British males used the matches of their beloved clubs as an excuse to menace, en masse, whatever community they found themselves in. Nearly twenty-five years on, Among the Thugs hasn’t lost one iota of its horrifying, shocking impact. It remains as powerful as a boot-stomp to the head, of which there are bloody many.

“At my first newspaper job, Among the Thugs was required reading. I’d grown up watching footage of English hooliganism, always taking that shamefully prurient adolescent interest in the casual violence. Reading Buford, I was forced to think about it as a grown-up, to try to gain a proper understanding for this phenomenon,” says Dave Hannigan, an Irish sportswriter whose latest book is Behan in the USA: The Rise and Fall of the Most Famous Irishman in New York. “The education was useful. A couple of years later, I was on hand as English thugs rioted and tore up Dublin’s Lansdowne Road.”

Among the Thugs is thick with unshakable moments of violence: An Italian father beaten silly in front of his kids for the crime of being in the way. A cop having his eyeball literally sucked out of his face. A fan stabbed to death by six shivs to his heart ... Too many miseries shared, too many bones broken, too many shops destroyed, too many lives lost. What keeps the book from being dragged down in the muck of its basest elements, from reveling in the depravity, is Buford himself. In 1982, he was an American outsider who ended up in the middle of a Manchester United horror show and became fascinated by the nihilistic subculture that laid Turin's town square to waste. He’d go on to spend the next eight years immersed in it, hating what he would witness, but also understanding that the barbarity and savagery was oddly seductive.

waiting-for-a-goal“Here I was living in Britain and I fell into a soccer train and there was so much going on. At that time, crowd violence was the fashion. It was what young men did for kicks. The younger teens followed in the footsteps of the eighteen to twenty-five-year-olds. It was Orwell’s England; it was riveting,” says Buford, whose e-book Waiting for a Goal was published last month. “I knew when I was living with the hooligans, and then when I got it down on paper, that I was telling a story other people weren’t. I had a raw, primal, extreme experience that was a privilege to describe.”

One of the things the book captures best is the erotic buildup – the foreplay, if you will – that ruffians experience while waiting for the riot to “go off.” Like adolescent sex, the rioting is illicit, dirty, antisocial, impulsive, and compounded by raging hormones of boozed-up, repressed males who don’t give a you-know-what. Unfortunately, the climax isn't quick and adrenaline-sapping. It's long and builds to a sadistic frenzy. The mob violence is a thing unto itself, and one of the most surprising aspects of Among the Thugs that I picked up on this go-round is how little the soccer actually matters. Win, lose, or draw.  The matches are the conduit to the mayhem, an excuse for Saturday afternoon anarchy. The book often feels like a memoir from the front, but unlike sides in a war, or even by-any-means-necessary insurgencies, the thugs Buford embeds with have no cause. Sure, they tie their behavior to some misguided nationalism – “defending England’s honor,” they'd claim – but it’s all bollocks, because they destroy towns back home with equal aplomb. Burn it down for burning it down's sake. It’s the worldview of Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight," except instead of a single Joker, it’s thousands of wankers, and damn if there’s a Batman, or even a functioning police force, in sight.

It's why the bleakest passage in the book doesn’t depict one of its visceral moments of hell. It’s when Buford, sick of it all, himself included, explains what he’s learned from his time in the belly of the bloated, beery, British beast:

“This bored, empty, decadent generation consists of nothing more than what it appears to be. It is a lad culture without mystery, so deadened that it uses violence to wake itself up. It pricks itself so that it has feeling, burns its flesh so that it has smell.”

It’s a different time now, thankfully. Television, its attendant money, and post-9/11 security measures have washed away the riff-raff, at least in the world’s top leagues. Sure there is still plenty of racism, sexism, and homophobia trumpeted by idiotic fans, but ninety-six people dying in an overcrowded stadium (partly the result of a widespread police tactic of the time to keep hooligans penned in and not on the streets) seems like a thing of the past. As Hannigan notes, at the last Premier League game he attended, he laughed at an ad for Ryan Giggs yoga displayed for fans politely queued up to buy food.

If hooliganism, at least on a large, week-in-week-out scale, is a dying way of life, then the legacy of Among the Thugs will evolve. It will be more of a historical footnote, the record of a baffling period when the "fun" of supporting a soccer squad meant beating strangers to within an inch of their lives. And that's for the better. The experience for Buford, however, will linger.

“I had nightmares when I was writing it. It was wintertime – cold, dank, and dreary. I had a lot of terrifying scenes to get out. I’d reenact them in my head, so I'd often wake up in the middle of the night, pouring them out onto the page,” says Buford, who is currently working on a book about becoming a chef in France. “But I’m grateful to have the knowledge. It’s a puncturing of the brain when someone you’re with turns around and commits a terrible atrocity, but it contributes to my understanding of the world. Some of the horrible images I witnessed will stay with me forever, but I’d rather know what I know than not know it. I no longer harbor any illusions about human behavior.”

Unless you’re as amoral as one of the bloodthirsty brutes Buford depicts, his unforgettable memoir will leave a mark. It’s what great writing does. Still, I have to wonder if his time in the alcoholic, xenophobic, skull-crushing trenches ruined the glorious thing that brought him into the jungle in the first place. Does he still love soccer?

“Sports is the unrecognized theater of human civilization. Aristotle could’ve written a Poetics about sports, and the World Cup is a magnified version of what goes on every weekend all over the globe. It’s got all the elements of a great drama: expectations, expectations thwarted, turnarounds, tragedy, defeat, elation ... Except there’s no script. It’s live and unpredictable,” Buford says. “I’m still a rabid, screaming-at-the-TV, foaming-at-the-mouth kind of fan. Like a lot of those guys I hung out with, there’s no way I’d miss the final match.”