On May 22, 1989, the novelist Anthony Burgess wrote about soccer hooliganism.
Circus Maximus, British-Style
At Sheffield, Britain’s steel town, a director of the Liverpool team, Tony Ensor, looked at a boy of 9 or 10 lying dead on the field of Hillsborough Stadium and asked himself the question: ”Is football worth the grief it can cause?” His answer was that he was not sure any more. I am quite sure that, so far as Britain is concerned, soccer is more a source of misery than of entertainment.
I specify Britain, since in Europe soccer becomes a matter of disorder and terror only when British team supporters tread foreign soil, get drunk on foreign drink and give way to aggressive impulses that may or may not be xenophobic. But something worse than hooliganism was in evidence at Sheffield – nearly 100 spectators crushed to death, not because of brutal aggression but because of a failure of organization.
Many aspects of the modern age had their beginning in Britain – railways, industrialism, the seaside resort, the weekend, organized sports. Of these, rugby and soccer have been major exports.
Soccer is a demotic game, a game for the working man. It may well have had its origins in village aggression, and there are some who believe that the leather ball was originally a severed head. It seems, in essence, a sport of simple tactics – a matter of kicking a ball into a net – but it has its own elegance and subtlety.
Aficionados of soccer should, theoretically, rejoice in skill more than grow heated with partisan passion. But the sport has taken on the qualities of a kind of contained war. Support for the local or national team can be invested with a frenzy that cuts at the roots of what we think of as civilized behavior. And the support is itself more abstract or nominal than genuinely civic or patriotic.
This sport is, in Britain, conducted in conditions that point to its historical origins. As with industry, Britain got in too soon. It has always been easier to make do with a decaying technology than to scrap and start anew. Our soccer stadiums are inadequate because they have been there a long time.
Nations that discovered the game late have had the advantage of being able to meditate on what we may call stadial technology and insure both comfort and safety for spectators. Moats and fences equipped with gates insure that there shall be neither crushes nor stampedes.
Too many watch the game, too few play it. The situation is comparable to the gladiatorial days of the Roman Empire, except that it is the spectators now who give their blood and not the participants. The crowds that jostle – flock is only appropriate when we consider the sheepheadedness of many – seeking to have their aggressive instincts whipped by the thrill of contest are vast and capable of control only by an armed militia.
There is something wrong with a society that is forced to become scared of a mere game. In ancient Greece thousands filled the amphitheaters to watch Aeschylus and Sophocles. They watched games, too, but with something like the dispassionate interest they would bring to an art. At least, so we like to believe. But in Britain we have watched a progressive deterioration of spectator manners allied to a manic augmentation of spectators’ numbers.
With a major game – semifinal or cup final – one always expects disaster of some sort and breathes with disbelief when it does not happen. One feels like saying: The game has had its day; let it join the other discarded perils of history. But for soccer to be banned by Government fiat would provoke a bloodier revolution than France knew just 200 years ago.
Shall it be, as it is already for millions, a mere television spectacle? No, for there is no great thrill in watching a gladiatorial combat on a small screen. One needs the curiously heady feeling of abandoning the burden of one’s week-day personality in order to assume the irresponsibility of being a mere cell in a primitive collective. Television sport is a kind of fiction; one mistrusts those colored images; the shifting eyes of the cameras are not human eyes.
The soccer stadiums of Britain will have to follow the continental and American examples – security as a science, seats for all instead of sardine-packing in the stands. Whether the British can ever be persuaded to treat their national game as family entertainment, as in the United States, is doubtful. Soccer has been too long established as a pretext for marginal violence, obscene racist songs, barbarous partisanship.
We can insure, having learned a shocking lesson, that the events of Hillsborough will not be repeated. But there are other kinds of disorder than allowing people to be crushed to death. Soccer and aggression, at least in Britain, go too well together.
The British are a violent people. Their history has been partly a chronicle of the subduing of violence. Ironically, games like professional soccer were once considered a surrogate for the aggression of civil war or of colonization of reputedly barbarous territories. We see now that this is not so.
If I were to say now that a total veto should be imposed on professional soccer in order that there should be no repetition of the Hillsborough disaster, would not the response be a howl for my blood? For many thousands of Britons there is nothing more important than the Saturday yell of the crowd as it watches 22 men kicking a piece of leather about. There is something wrong with our culture if we have come to this.
Anthony Burgess is the author of numerous novels and essays.