Football fans have power to influence nation's political course - hooligan turned author
Euro 2016 is drawing to a close. One of the most important football events, it was marred by widely reported fighting between the fans of rival national teams and brawls with the police. This kind of violence is not something unusual though - almost every major football tournament sees clashes between hooligans. What drives people to behave this way? Is it something about the sport itself? Is it just a way to blow off steam - or a culture of its own? We ask a man who knows all about football hooliganism. Best-selling author and the screenwriter of the award-winning feature, ‘Green Street’ - Dougie Brimson is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze:: Dougie Brimson, author of best-selling books about football hooliganism, screenwriter for the award-winning feature, ‘Green Street’ - welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now the end of the Euro-2016 in France is fast approaching with the final set for Sunday. But overshadowing events on the pitch, French authorities have reportedly arrested over a thousand people in connection with hooliganism already. Will we continue to hear about more violence at the tournament?
Dougie Brimson: I’d hope no. I think most of the nations left don’t have a particularly troublesome following on a national level. So, unless the local, the French ultra-groups decide to kick things off or the police decides to get aggressive - I think we should see quite a peaceful end of the tournament.
SS: So you think the worst has passed?
DB: I think the worst has… yeah. I mean, it usually does at tournaments, it’s kind of, you have... the problems tend to be at the early stages, when everybody’s away from home for the first time, everybody’s getting settled into a new environment, getting to work out how the police are going to work, how the locals are going to work. Certainly, after England went out, the main issues have been kind of resolved.
SS: Football hooliganism has often been called ‘the English disease’ - With the British media coining the term in the 1960’s. You’ve mentioned that some of the violence at Euro-2016 has been driven by a desire to battle the historical top boys - the English fans. Will we see any retaliation from them after the incidents in France?
DB: No, that’s not how it tends to work these days. The support of the England national side has changed markedly over the last 15 years. Because of the problems we had in the past, whenever England travelled abroad and caused real problems - which probably dates back to France ‘98, the worst ones. But, in the main, most English lads now, because of the way we are policed, because of the risks in terms of potential jail, football banning orders and things like that - when England lads travel abroad to follow England as opposed to their clubs, they tend to go in a spirit of kind of party, almost, and that’s what they would hope for. The problems come when people, as you say, have a go at the English fans to try and enhance their own reputation based on history that is long dead. And the English lads, and the way they’re policed as well has an impact. And English lads won’t back down from the fight. So, of course, as soon as it kicks off, you immediately have a problem, and that manifests itself in further problems.
SS: Do the English even care about hooliganism anymore?
DB: No, to be fair, I don’t think we do, certainly not on a national level. Since, probably, France ‘98, which was the last major incident. I mean, it was a big incident on Euro-2000, but it wasn’t actually a big incident at all. It was quite small, but it was blown out of all proportions but the media, who wanted some hooligan footage, they wanted a lot of news coverage of hooliganism, which didn’t really exist. The problem is, it’s almost created by the policing, the media. The English lads who go abroad - and you have to remember that at this tournament there were hundreds of convicted hooligans who were banned from travelling anyway... So, even if you look at the English support in terms of hooliganism, the ones that actually made it to France weren’t hooligans at all. They were just normal football fans, normal football lads. So, any attack on them wasn’t really an attack on English hooligans at all, because they weren’t there.
SS: You know, a lot of supporters involved in brawls during Euro-2016 were just drunk - does it have anything to do with organised hooliganism or is it just a problem of fans being irresponsible with alcohol?
DB: No. The concept of organised hooliganism in English football and particularly with the international side doesn’t exist anymore. It’s something a lot of people like to talk about, but it just doesn’t happen. What you have is you have just groups of lads from different clubs, they follow England, because it’s a party, it’s a festival of football. They go to have a drink and be loud, which is how English fans watch football. What we saw, in particular in Marseille, was we saw a clash of two hooligan cultures. We saw the old school English football lad, if you like, who likes to get drunk and be loud, coming under attack from the organized ultra groups from both France, and, of course, from Russia. It’s a completely different beast. I mean, the ultra groups are far more organized, far more violent and far more potentially dangerous than the English football fans have been for some length of time. The issue is, when those two cultures clash, when one of them is English - as I said before, the English fans won’t back down - so even though, initially, they’ll back away from the confrontation, because most of them aren’t fighters anyway, they will soon be backed up with people who are prepared to fight, who are prepared to kind of defend themselves, because they know the police aren’t necessarily going to defend them. And that’s when it becomes a big problem for English football. The flipside of that, of course, is that the backlash came more on the Russian football fans than the English football fans.
SS:You’ve written about the sense of national pride that people get when they see hooligans of their home country on TV ripping into the opposition. So people at home are actually, tacitly, supporting hooligan movements, even if officials condemn it in the press?
DB: Yeah, it’s an odd thing. I think it is one of those things that people like to hide, if that makes sense. When you see your countrymen - I mean, I can’t speak for other countries, I can only speak for being English - now, when I see English lads being attacked in France or in Italy or wherever, and then they start fighting back, I’m kind of… it’s a misplaced pride in those lads, for having a nerve to stand up and fight. The reason I feel like that is because of the way the politics and the issue of patriotism has gone in England, particularly. I mean, the suppression of patriotism in England is well documented and it is only now, post-referendum, that we’re actually seeing an upsurge in people who are proud to be English again - which, for me, is one of the key reasons for voting to leave Europe. The difference and the backside of that: it’s a very negative thing for other people, the way that they perceive your country. So people perceive English fans as all being hooligans and by, definition, England being full of hooligans. My fear for Russian football, on the back of what happened in France, is that everybody will start to see Russia as quite a violent place, Russian football being rife with utra-groups and racists and violence, which isn’t necessarily the case, but for those of us on the outside, I think, it’s quite potentially damaging to Russia, and that’s a bad thing. In my opinion, that’s a very bad thing.
SS:I want to talk about how much of this is about football. During the Euros, Croatian hooligans interrupted a game their team was playing with the Czech Republic by throwing flares onto the pitch. There was even speculation that the fans wanted to get their team kicked out – over a feud between supporter groups and the Croatian FA. You say, it’s all about football in the end. But the hooligans will even target their own teams - how is that?
DB: Well, the thing with the Croatian football was that they saw their game being taken away from them by a corrupt group of officials and a corrupt organisation. As fans you’re impotent, there’s nothing you can do; when something’s going wrong in your game, there’s nothing you can do about it. What we saw with the Croatian game is their fans actually deciding to do something about it in the most high profile way possible. The wanted to draw attention to it. I mean, ultimately, it worked very badly for them, but they drew attention to a problem they are having - which, ultimately, is the aim. I mean, there is a school of thought, and it’s a growing school of thought, even in England, that football as a potential political driving force has huge potential, and it’s not just in a negative way, in a positive way. I mean, I’m sitting here in London. Now, in London and in and around London, there were fourteen professional football clubs, which supporters number in millions. Now, if you could galvanize those people into a footbal political organisation, you would have, potentially, a huge amount of power: not only over your game, but over the democratic process in this country. It’s something that has been talked about a great deal. I’ve written about it a great deal, because it’s something that really interests me. So, maybe, what we saw around the Croatian game are the first signs of that kind of thing happening in other countries. It is well documented in Italy, for example, that the ultra-groups have put pressure on their clubs to sign certain players, to sack certain players, to do certain things. Politics and the Italian football go hand in hand, they always have, but it’s always in the negative sense. So, maybe, we need to start thinking about how we can turn that towards a more positive thing. We did see it, as an example, here in England, we saw the galvanization of the football fans in a drive to solve the racism problem we had in football, and that was hugely successful. What they did is they seemed to stop, rather than to carry and move that momentum, and that was a big failure for me.
SS:We are seeing different country’s ultra-groups excited about going “to war” with other fans. Is hooliganism about individual, national rivalries? Does it foster dangerous nationalism or it’s simply a way to blow off steam for these groups?
DB: I think it depends on the country. Every country is different. We, in English football, we’ve never had an “ultra” culture. Our culture was very much along the lines “it’s all football, it’s all on match day”, it’s all kind of underground, but it’s a part-time gang culture. In countries such as Italy, France, Spain, Argentina - all of the South American countries - the ultra culture is far more organized, far more sinister, far more dangerous. Yeah, there’s a nationalistic element to it in some countries, but there’s also an extreme left-wing element allied to some of the clubs in Italy and in Spain, for example. So, it is politicised, but the focus of it tends to be more focused on the club and what goes on at that club. The catalyst for it all is football and people tend to forget that. It is all about football. It is not just necessarily about violence. Yeah, it becomes tribal, because you want confrontations with other groups about just them following other football clubs, but the catalyst is always football.
SS:Football thugs and right-wing groups, or neo-nazis often go hand in hand - is it fair to associate the two?
DB: It depends. Yes and no. I mean, that’s a massive question. A lot of people on the outside like to think that football hooligans and ultra-groups and fascism and nazism go hand in hand. In reality, it isn’t necessarily true. Yes there are guys who are very political, involved in football, but that's the same on Left and Right. I mean, one of the problems with hooliganism is that people on the outside don’t understand it. They don’t get why guys fight at football and they don’t get why guys behave in the way they do. They don’t see what they get out of it. So, they have to stick these kind of labels on it. I mean, there are fans who play up to that, but it is important to remember - you don’t get a politically correct football hooligan. The point of being involved in that kind of culture is to scare, is to bully, is to intimidate. And you do that in any way you can, and if that means you singing nazi songs on a particular game - you sing nazi songs on particular game. That’s what you do, you want to scare people. Whether you believe that away from football - it’s a different thing entirely. It’s fair to say, certainly, historically, that the right wing has had a big grip on football, but it is not necessarily the same today. Certainly not the same inside English football. If anything, it’s the left wing who has more of a foothold in football.
SS:Does the hooligan movement have ties to the criminal world? Criminal groups could probably use violent, trained groups to their advantage, right?
DB: We’ve not seen so much in England. I mean, I actually wrote a novel about that, my novel “The Crew” - I think it’s called “Commando” in Russia. It’s about that kind of thing. But we’ve not seen it in English football. In English football, what happens at football, stays at football. One of the attractions of people involved in it is that it allows you to be with a lot of guys and behave in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily behave away from football. That means you can go and be loud and shout at the police and fight with other fans - but that doesn’t necessarily make you violent away from football, it doesn’t make you a criminal away from football. Many football fans don’t perceive what they do as being a criminal offence, even though that’s exactly what it is, of course. But, for them, part of the attraction is the competition with authority and the forces of law and order. But as for taking it beyond that, into the realms of crime - I can’t say in other countries, but it’s certainly not the case here. In the 80s, there were signs this was happening, certainly in the sense of security and drugs, but I don't think that’s the case so much today. Certainly not in England.
SS: So, what about other political groups taking advantage of hooligans? You’ve talked briefly about that earlier. During the Arab spring, Egyptian ultras played a major role in the revolution, so did the Ukrainian hooligans during the government overthrow in Kiev in 2014 - are ultras a useful soldier pool for political forces, how easy is it to use them in political conflict?
DB: I mean, if you go back to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, that war basically kicked off on the terraces and the militia groups had their roots in the ultra groups who’ve followed the various clubs in Croatian and Serbian football. So, it has history. And if you look at certain countries, who have problems politically, and where you have oppressive government regimes and oppressive police forces, etc, the only place where you can really let off steam is at football. So, it stands to reason that that’s where you’re going to talk about politics, you’re going to talk about everything that’s wrong, you’re going to talk about all of your problems. So, certainly, in countries - more in Eastern Europe and South America, etc - the football terrace is a breeding ground for that kind of resentment and that kind of problems. So, it is no surprise, really, that in the past we’ve seen groups and political influence spring from the football terraces.. Certainly, in the 70s, the extreme right wing, the National Front, the British National party, Combat 18 - they all recruited from the football terraces of England, because they knew that’s where the working class guys were. That’s where the guys who had problems with immigrants, with racism, etc. That’s where they gathered, that’s where they were, so it was an obvious place to recruit.
SS: You know, the UK government was quoted by the Guardian saying that many of the Russian fans who took part in violence at the Euro 2016 were part of Russia’s security services, fighting President Putin’s ‘hybrid warfare’ - what do you make of these claims? What do they even mean?
DB: The problem I’ve seen - I’ve talked about this a lot before - I am a big fan of Russia, I am a big fan of Russian football, I’ve been in Russia a few times, I like the Russian people. Over here, the vast majority of people, to them Russia is still a mystery. In many senses, it’s still partly, the Soviet Union. So we don’t understand what goes there. So, most people here only get to believe what they’re fed by the media who are biased anyway. Now all of this stuff to do with football, I have argued this in the past, and I will continue to argue it: when Russia won the 2018 bid, they’ve beat England to that bid. Now at that time, I said that at some point, the English authorities are going to start slaughtering Russian football and the Russian authorities, in a bid to have that tournament taken off of Russia. And if they’d have it taken off of Russia the only place it can come with any legitimate claim, where all of the facilities are already in place to do it, is England. And that’s exactly what’s happening now on the back of this tournament, because the media were full of not just the ultra groups but the fact that they’ve been given tickets by the government officials, that they’ve been encouraged by the government officials, that they’ve gone back to Russia almost as heroes… All these sorts of stuff, and it’s all fueled, in my mind, it’s all fueled to get more and more hype to have this tournament taken off of Russian football and it would have to come to England. It would have to come England. I’ve been saying that for last 2-3 years, which is why, every time there’s been an incident of racism in Russia, it has received huge amounts of press coverage here - because racism is a massive issue in the UK. The inference is that Russian football is inherently racist. Now, I know that that isn’t true, but over here, this is what everybody believes, and for a long time now I’ve been saying that Russian football has to kind of go on a charm offensive to convince the rest of the world that it isn’t this kind of horrific football league that people seem to think it is. You are, in Russia, in grave danger of losing the 2018 World Cup and that would be a real tragedy.
SS: So, if we go back to hooliganism. What drives people into the hooligan lifestyle? In a movie you helped create, “It’s a Casual Life”, it’s all about belonging, a sense of friendship - is it really about that? Aren’t there better ways to find friends?
DB: No, because, if you go to football - I mean, there are different ways to watch football, and it is all about football. There are different ways to watch football, some guys watch football on TV and never go to games. Some people only go to games once in a while, some people go to every home game, some people go to every game home and away and never miss a game. Other guys go and they will fight to protect their reputation and honor of their football club and their city. Hooliganism is just an extreme way of watching football and following football. This really boils down to one simple thing - people get involved in this kind of thing in football because it’s fun. And people on the outside don’t understand that. But if you think about it, you don’t do anything unless you enjoy doing it. And I’ve always said that hooliganism is the original extreme sport, because if you jump from an airplane with a parachute, if you ski down the mountain, if you go diving in the sea, pretty soon you’re going to have to jump from higher, ski down a steeper slope, dive deeper - because you need that adrenaline rush. If you go to football or are involved in this kind of culture, the adrenalin rush you get never tails off, because you don’t know what’s around the next corner, what’s on the next train station, what the next game is going to bring. You don’t know! But, in the company of that, you’re with a group of guys who you’ve known for years, who you know have your back, if you’re in trouble, and they know you have their back if they’re in trouble. In that sense, it’s quite military, that camaraderie, that comradeship, and they’re friends for life. And you go for this shared experiences of proving yourself, your manhood, your honor, your strength, your bravery - whatever! You do it because it’s fun. And the only way you’ll ever solve hooliganism, the only way you’ll ever rid the game of this kind of problem, is to replace it with something else - and that is the $64 million question: what is that something else? Because however much legislation you bring in, however much games are policed, whatever the threat to the hooligans, they’ll still be replaced by new ones, and new ones after that and new ones after that. Hooliganism dates back hundreds of years, it’s the birth of the game itself. In England it was at its height in the 80s, and we’re still talking about it today. And the reason we’re still talking about it because no one on the outside understands it, and if you don’t understand it, you can never solve it, and that’s part of the attraction, it’s this secret world. Everyone watching this, everyone watching football, should be familiar with the film called the “Fight Club”, with Brad Pitt. Hooliganism is a fight club. ‘Green Street’ was Britain's ‘Fight Club’. That’s what we wanted to market it as originally in America, because that’s fundamentally what it’s about. It’s about fun. It’s about proving yourself. And it always will be.
SS: Dougie Brimson, thank you very much for this wonderful insight to the world of hooliganism. It’s been great talking to you. We were talking to Dougie Brimson, the author of bestselling books on football hooliganism, screenwriter for the award-winning feature, Green Street, discussing how strong the football hooliganism movement is today, and what’s in it in the future. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.