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June 07, 2006

It is the inescapable duty of every decent citizen to express no interest in or enthusiasm for football and the World Cup - Theodore Dalrymple explains why

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple explains why it is the inescapable duty of every decent citizen to express no interest in or enthusiasm for football and the World Cup.

The Prime Minister, Mr Blair, once claimed in a speech to a Labour Party conference that he was kept awake at night by worry over the fate of "his" team, Newcastle United. It was a joke, of course, and everyone laughed; but there was clearly a serious point behind it. (By serious, I do not mean morally or intellectually serious, of course, I mean electorally serious.) And the point was this: that notwithstanding Mr Blair's privileged personal background, notwithstanding his predilection for the company of and invitations to stay in exotic locations with multimillionaires of dubious reputation, notwithstanding his acceptance of donations to his party from such multi-millionaires, notwithstanding the large sums made by his wife in a branch of law the scope of which his government has extended, and notwithstanding his self-important presidential style, he remains a man of the people, whose tastes are no different from yours and mine.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the members of his first government also claimed to be interested in football. Indeed, according to their entries in Who's Who, football was the only thing, outside politics and therefore the welfare of the whole of humanity, in which they claimed to be interested. They claimed, as I recall, not a single cultural interest between them, though many of them were highly educated men and women. It was as if a cultural interest were a political kiss of death.

Several related questions present themselves about the importance clearly attached by ruling politicians to the public expression of interest in football. Is it genuine or assumed? Which would be worse, a sincere or insincere expression of interest? And what does the seemingly obligatory expression of such an interest tell us about the culture of the country these politicians rule?

A necessary, though not sufficient, condition of a sincere interest in football would require at least one such activity as attendance at matches, watching games on television, reading reports in newspapers, keeping up with league tables (one would hardly expect cabinet members themselves actually to play football, though such a thought gives rise to pleasing fantasies). The condition is not a sufficient one, however, because it would still be possible for someone to do any or all of these things out of pure political calculation. The age of ideology may be past, but certainly not that of political monomania. Those who seek political office must devote themselves to the quest from adolescence or early adulthood, to the exclusion of all else, and are therefore perfectly accustomed to tailor their activities to their political ambitions.

Suppose for a moment that the interest is genuine and the expressions of such interest sincere: does it automatically presage something wrong? Is there anything inherent in the sport of football that excludes it from the consideration of civilised people? Is interest in it confined, by its very nature, to fools or philistines?

The answer is obviously no. The sport itself involves great physical skill and stamina, as well as resources of character when played at a high level, and all such sports have the power to move and excite spectators. There is nothing wrong with this: it accords with human nature. The objection is therefore not to the sport itself, but to the exaggerated importance given to it, and to the place it occupies in modern British culture (here using the word culture in the anthropological sense). To fail to recognise, or to pretend to fail to recognise, football's relatively lowly place on the scale of human accomplishment is to be uncivilised or, in the case of the dissimulator, to ally oneself with enemies of civilisation, which is perhaps yet worse.

Of course, someone has to take football more seriously than it deserves if the sport is to be played at an entertainingly high level; and society would be deeply impoverished if no one were ever impassioned by relatively trivial or unimportant accomplishments. But that is certainly no reason for us to take trivial or unimportant accomplishments as seriously as those who have laboured long and hard to achieve them must take them.

An interest in football is not in the least incompatible with other interests, and no doubt a long list of great men who had or have an interest in it could no doubt be drawn up, but the virtual exclusivity of the interest in football of members of the British cabinet was very striking. If this were a true reflection of their mental horizons, then we, the British people, had elected to be ruled by a group of culturally very stunted and primitive individuals; and if it wasn't, if in other words these individuals were presenting themselves to us differently from how they actually were, then their purported exclusive interest in football was a reflection of their opinion of the stuntedness of the electorate upon whom their power depended.

It follows that the political elite of this country either has an exaggerated idea of the importance of football, evincing a kind and degree of enthusiasm appropriate to twelve year olds, or it believes that the population it flatters to represent, but in reality aspires to rule, is so obsessed by football that it would be electoral suicide to acknowledge an interest besides football. Either way, football looms much larger in national life than it should.

If men and women whose real extracurricular interests were, say, French poetry or Byzantine art, nevertheless felt obliged for the sake of their political careers to express an interest in football to the exclusion of all else, they would in effect be acknowledging that an interest in football was antithetical to more cultivated tastes, or at least that those with an interest in the sport were actively hostile to intellectual and artistic refinement. Of course, they might be entirely mistaken in this view: there might, among the football crowds, be thousands who are really thirsting for intellectual enlightenment and artistic beauty. On the other hand, they might well be right.

Judging by the appearance and behaviour of football crowds, however, the latter appears to me to be by far the more likely. Indeed, one could hardly have a better illustration than the conduct of British football crowds of mankind's desire to break away from the constraints of civilisation. No doubt there are those who think it is better that they should break away in this fashion than in some other, even worse fashion, because (it will be alleged) such a breakaway is inevitable in one form or another. And we must, after all, get things in proportion: the disasters wrought in and around football stadiums, while not a few, have always been small-scale by comparison with the other man-made disasters of the Twentieth, and no doubt the Twenty-First, Century. So even if football crowds behave in an uncivilised fashion, they are never uncivilised in the worst or highest possible degree.

The benign view of football crowd conduct depends upon the idea that it is somehow cathartic, that there is a fixed quantity of irritation or resentment at civilised standards within the human breast, and that if it is not successfully discharged in relatively harmless or benign ways (such as shouting abuse for hours on end at an opposing tribe of supporters), then it will be discharged in other and far more noxious and malignant ways. This is much in accord with the modern British attitude to emotional life, an attitude which represents something of a gestalt switch from the old or traditional view: that far from seeking to control one's emotions by restrained behaviour, one should allow one's emotions to control one's behaviour.

This gestalt switch was, at least in part, the result of the progress of the slow poison of crude Freudianism (crude because Freud never actually subscribed to it, quite the reverse in fact): namely, the idea that an emotion that remained unexpressed, which is to say repressed, was bound in the end to lead to psychopathology and pathological conduct. Emotion is thus like pus that builds up in an abscess: if it is not released, it is likely to infect the whole organism. It is therefore a good thing a safety valve for frustrations of every kind, a mere blowing off of steam that might otherwise cause an explosion that football crowds should conduct themselves in a crude and offensive way.

Unfortunately, this view of human emotions and of catharsis by the public expression of vulgarity and aggression is almost certainly wrong. It is far more likely that appetites grow with feeding. An analogous argument was put forward in favour of extreme representations of violence in film and on television: that they would somehow safely discharge the fixed quantity of violence and aggression that lurked in every human breast waiting to emerge (we are, or at least were, before the advent of such representations of violence, all mad axemen waiting to happen).

While there can be no absolutely conclusive proof in this matter, the evidence points all in the other direction: that a mental diet of representational violence conduces to actual everyday violence and criminality rather than its reduction. It is true that fully-formed adults, raised in a different ethical atmosphere, do not become violent when exposed to representations of violence: they are, so to speak, living on the ethical capital of their youth. But in every society that has been studied in which television, with its vast repertoire of violence, has been introduced comparatively late in the day, from whole countries to isolated populations within large countries, the rate of violence has risen a few years later, as those who were brought up with it reach the age most susceptible to the attractions of violence, namely adolescence and early adulthood. And while no society ever finds itself prey to total violence, disorder and breakdown (the nearest to such a society known to me being the Ik as described by Colin Turnbull [Colin Turnbull, The Mountain People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972]), because countervailing forces come into play, any society that encourages representations of violence is making things more difficult for itself, from the point of view of the safety of its streets, than they need be.

As for experimental evidence, it mainly points in the same direction: that representation of violence, far from being cathartic, are demonstrative.

It seems to me likely, then, that the crudity and vulgarity of football crowds is self-reinforcing, not cathartic, and that such crudity and vulgarity are likely to spill over into other aspects of life. (I don't think it is possible to say that the general behaviour in our streets has become ever more refined and gracious as football crowds continue with their vulgarity.) This is the more so when the supposed elite of the country not only fails to make an objection to such crudity and vulgarity, but seeks to flatter those who indulge in them by professions of sympathy, interest and solidarity.

Is this not too puritanical? Are the masses not to have their popular entertainments? Was it not ever thus? Did not the circus factions of Byzantium, the Blues and the Greens, indulge in mayhem and riot, and on a much larger scale than our modern football crowds? [Alan Campbell, Circus Factions, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1976 - The author demonstrates that the Byzantine circus factions, long thought to have been expressing by their behaviour either political or social discontent, were merely vandals and hooligans.] Is there not vulgarity enough in Chaucer and Shakespeare? Are there to be no more cakes and ale? And are not football crowds sometimes capable of genuine wit?

Clearly, vulgarity has its place. No one would want to live in a society composed entirely of well brought-up young ladies. But vulgarity is interesting and amusing only in contradistinction to something else. Bawdiness is, or should be, parasitic on refinement, sometimes as a satire on or corrective to over-refinement. Nor is it always and everywhere appropriate. Even Mistress Quickly in Shakespeare reveals herself to be a woman of fine feeling and humanity when she describes the death of Falstaff. She is not vulgar to the very depths of her being. When vulgarity achieves cultural hegemony, when it is praised, flattered and deferred to, however, then people will be vulgar to the depths of their being.

Football is, or has become, a pretext for behaviour that would not be tolerated in other contexts, and which has coarsened and continues to coarsen the whole tenor of society. This behaviour has become so widespread that politicians fear to criticise it, or at least to draw attention to the connection between it and "the beautiful game" in which they feel it necessary to claim to be so interested.

It is not very difficult to observe the connection. In pubs in which large television screens relay matches, for example, large numbers of young adults behave in a disinhibited way, screaming and shouting, often obscenities, and always with a hint of menace. You feel that violence is never very far removed, and could break out at any time. Only people who have given up entirely on the notion of civilised behaviour would fail to find these scenes deeply unattractive, as well as profoundly depressing. These are people not so much enjoying themselves, as straining to persuade themselves and each other that they are enjoying themselves. The void and awareness that life is a brief spell of consciousness with a complete lack of purpose, between two eternal oblivions does not seem very far away.

The behaviour of the crowds is often perhaps usually, despicable. The supporters of the two teams have to be kept apart, at huge expense, by a veritable army of police. (If I were a burglar, I would choose the afternoon of a local football match on which to pursue my profession.) Not long ago I attended a match on behalf of a newspaper for which I had acted as a kind of vulgarity correspondent - they sent me to many places where numbers of English gathered and behaved badly, which is to say almost everywhere where they gathered for purposes of leisure or entertainment - between two teams that were certainly not among the foremost in the country.

The coaches containing the supporters of the away team arrived, and the passengers were virtually frogmarched into the stadium between columns of policemen. This was a vision not so much of free-born Englishmen, as of Englishmen as natural slaves, or slaves of their own ungovernable passions. Unable or unwilling to control themselves, they had to be controlled by main force. I had an uncomfortable and genuinely unpleasant frisson of having observed in miniature the end result or product of freedom when conceived as licence: an almost militarised authoritarianism.

In the stadium, I sat among the home supporters. Next to me was a father and his eleven year-old boy. The father seemed to be a mild-mannered man, much concerned for the comfort and welfare of his son. Suddenly, in the middle of the match, and for reasons that I was unable to discern, he stood up and started to hurl the most vulgar and violent abuse at the section of the stadium into which the opposing supporters had been herded. Was this the example he wanted to give his son? Was this how he would want his don to remember him? Apparently it was.

For the duration of the match, there was little trouble, though of course bloodshed was prevented only by the presence of high wire fences and the presence of brigades of policemen. After the match was over, however, some of the away supporters managed to escape from the supervision of the police and caused havoc in the centre of the city, smashing shop windows (and no doubt helping themselves), and wrecking a few pubs. Their team had lost, and no doubt it was essential for their psychological health that they should vent their frustration on something external to themselves for who knows what terrible consequences they might have suffered later in life if they hadn't?

And this is what a supporter of the English team, playing a "friendly" match in Rome, to which I had likewise been sent by the same newspaper, said to me when I asked him at half-time why he had come all this way to shout disgusting obscenities at the Italians for hours on end. "You have to let your hair down," he said to me, implying that there would be dire personal consequences if he, and everyone else, didn't.

There were about 10,000 English supporters present. Rome hadn't seen anything so barbaric since the arrival of Alaric. Once inside the stadium, the supporters shouted their vile insults in unison and made gestures that looked remarkably like the Fascist salute. Perhaps they didn't realise the connotations of what they were doing in a city that had once embraced and suffered from real Fascism, or maybe they did. Here, perhaps, we can see one of the perverse effects of multiculturalist pieties: multiculturalism may demand in theory that we understand and accept the behaviour of others, but in practice, more often than not, it demands that others understand and accept our behaviour, whatever it may be, including the menacing use en masse of something approaching the Fascist salute. "This is how we behave, this is how we are, this is us, so you just have to accept it," they say: exactly as burglars in the prison in which I used to work were inclined to say, "I'm a burglar, burgling is what I do," as if any disapproval were a vicious assault on their individuality and the integrity of their person.

This explains why, when the Italian police finally charged at them, the English supporters were outraged by the injustice of it. No such thing could happen at home. What had they done to deserve it? Nothing except having forced the Italians to prepare their capital city as for an armed invasion, having behaved in an intimidating manner for hours on end, having screamed obscenities in unison for almost as long, and having given the impression that they might be Fascists.

True, one or two of them, or nine or ten, or ninety-nine or a hundred, might have thrown bottles at cars and people, and smashed a few windows in their understandable state of excited exuberance (if the Italians didn't like it, why had they sold them the alcohol that inflamed them? - it was therefore the commercial greed of the Italians that was to blame if any excesses had been committed by the English supporters), but even 100 people is only 1 per cent of a crowd of 10,000, so it was completely unjust for the Italian police to have treated all 10,000 as if they were criminal hooligans. Never mind that, when I looked around me in the midst of the 10,000, I was the only one - my wife thinks I exaggerate, but I do not - the only one not to be shouting obscenities or raising my hand in the Fascist-like salute.

There was an aspect of the crowd in Rome that surprised me, but which I suppose I might have deduced from certain elementary considerations, had I thought about them. The members of the crowd were certainly not members of the much reviled underclass, the feckless, ignorant, hopeless proportion of the population that has not enjoyed the prolonged festival of Britain's mortgage-based prosperity. On the contrary, it was soon evident from taking to them when they were not shouting that wittiest of all football refrains, Who the f... do you think you are? - that they were predominantly members of the middle class, with jobs such as computer programming or school-teaching. They were on holiday, it seems, from the need for good manners. The problem is that boorishness easily becomes a habit.

But there is more to it than that. At Rome airport, on the way home, I witnessed something that seemed to me emblematic of a deep, subterranean and unacknowledged movement in our society. A young woman in front of me in the queue to check in had an upper middle class bearing. When she spoke to the British Airways employee behind the counter, her speech was that of someone not unfamiliar with the streets around Sloane Square. She was polite, although obviously accustomed to receiving deference and service.

The next time I saw her was on the bus taking us from the terminal to the aircraft. The bus was full of England supporters, of whom, it turned out, she was one. Rejoining them, she at once started to speak in a completely different fashion from that she had used at the check-in counter: adopting the accent of people several rungs beneath her own in the social scale and using the vocabulary and syntax of the customers of an East End pub, she played at being one of the lads. (One of the consequences of the success of feminism is that everything deemed appropriate in male company is now deemed appropriate in female company.) Here was a modern equivalent of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess.

This mass downward cultural aspiration, at least at selected moments, is something new in British society - a professed interest in football being a strong expression of it. (Economic aspiration is something altogether different: no one aspires to be downwardly mobile as far as their income is concerned. Economic and cultural aspiration, that used to go more or less in tandem, have now separated and gone in opposite directions.)

Some years ago, I read the obituary of a pop singer in the Daily Telegraph [Daily Telegraph, 28th March, 2000 - The singer was Ian Dury, who was in many ways an admirable and likeable man] - that there was an obituary of such a figure at all tells us something as well - in which it was mentioned that, having been irritated by what he considered the false gentility of his school, he decided to adopt, once and for all, the accent of South London as being altogether more authentic. In other words, in the name of authenticity, he decided to speak in a way that was not natural to him: though no doubt by repetition and practice, it eventually became natural to him.

Authenticity thus demands the adoption of a role, which is surely a most curious form of authenticity. I contrast this with my father, who was born in the East End, but adopted early in life the received pronunciation, from whose use he never afterwards deviated. He did this in the name not of authenticity, but of social, economic and cultural mobility. (Such a move today might damage rather than enhance a person's career prospects.)

In this regard, it is interesting to contrast the linguistic efforts of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair. Both have sought to obscure their social origins by means of the way they speak, Mrs Thatcher to obscure her origins as a petit bourgeois from one of the most provincial counties of England, and Mr Blair to obscure his origins - with, it must be confessed, much less consistency and therefore success than Mrs Thatcher - as a privileged scion of the upper-middle classes. And this in itself is indicative of a seismic shift in British sensibilities.

An interest in football has thus become a badge of political virtue: which is to say of democratic sentiment, almost the only virtuous sentiment there is. Curiously enough, a supposedly multicultural age is highly intolerant of social differences in tastes, interests and preoccupations, and thus there has been a compression of taste, so that no one may safely disavow an interest in pop music or of course football. To do so is to avow yourself an enemy of the people, and to suggest that their interests may not be among the highest or best interests that a man can have.

The sincerest form of flattery is imitation, which is why large numbers of middle-class people now behave in a vulgar and degraded fashion in public. What better evidence could there be of their solidarity with those less favourably-placed than themselves? And their view of the British proletariat is, in a rather perverse way, romantically golden-ageist.

Those who say that the English character was once rather more attractive than it is now, who believe that George Orwell [George Orwell, England Your England, in The Lion and the Unicorn, Secker and Warburg, London, 1941] was drawing attention to something real about England, as were the foreigners whom he cited, are accused of being sentimental and golden-ageist (never mind that, say, the crime statistics bear Orwell out, even if there is no category of human misconduct that has not always existed to some extent).

Well, the middle classes have an equal but opposite golden age to refer to: the age when the proletarian Englishman was uninhibitedly free, drunken, promiscuous, witty, violent, vulgar, aggressive, foulmouthed, insensitive and egotistical, a kind of Dionysius dressed in rags and living in slums, but really living, not merely existing. As an oppressed person, of course, the proletarian could do no wrong: grub first (and beer, sex and football), then morals.

Of the two golden ages, the first seems to me to be rather more - though not wholly - realistic from the historical point of view. The proponents of both golden ages can point to evidence in support of both: for example, the memories of working class people who were able to leave their doors open because their neighbours and strangers were so honest, set against memories, taken from precisely the same era, of theft and drunken violence; or the working-class desire for self-improvement, behavioural restraint and respectability [Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the English Working Classes, Yale University Press, London, 2001], set against ignorant indifference to education, utter self-abandonment and egotism. The question is not which of these things existed and still exist, it a question of which sets or set the tone, which is or was the aspiration, which the tendency. I think this question answers itself.

The middle-class followers of football want to believe that the history of the British proletariat is of nothing but oppression by circumstance and by factory owner, and of the most enjoyably degraded and degrading resultant behaviour possible, perhaps with a little radical political activity thrown in, like herbs in a stew. They are the kind of people who, if you mention the mass public drunkenness that is among the less attractive aspects of British life today, never fail to mention Gin Lane, as if nothing had happened in the intervening two hundred and fifty years to cast doubt on a genetic explanation for such British public drunkenness.

The two golden ages of the British proletariat that of heroic self-restraint and self-improvement on the one hand, and that of Dionysian self-abandonment and self-indulgence on the other have very obviously different moral connotations and practical consequences for those who wish to demonstrate their generosity of feeling and democratic principles by means of imitation. If the first golden age is the more accurate, then the imitators should be trying to learn German after a hard day's work in order to be able to read Goethe in the original; if the latter, they should be abusive, vulgar, drunken and with an inclination to gratuitous violence.

I need hardly point out that there is a limit to the democratic vocation. No one's solidarity with the downtrodden is so great that he will learn German after a day's work, even if it was only a moderately hard day's work. On the other hand, the attractions of vandalism and vulgarity considered as an expression of political virtue are considerable. This no doubt explains why, near the Chelsea football ground, it is possible on match days to see people urinating the streets where the houses cost well in excess of 1 million, and hear obscenities creamed from the windows of cars that are worth the lifetime earnings of a hundred African peasants.

The desire to appear a man of the people rather than an enemy of the people probably accounts for the increased seriousness with which football is taken by literati. For example, the poet and literary critic, Ian Hamilton, who among other things wrote a biography of the poet, literary critic, cultural and educational philosopher, Matthew Arnold, also wrote an essay of more than 100 pages about the English footballer, Paul Gascoigne, called Gazza Agonistes, which was published in Granta, the nearest that Britain comes to a general literary journal of substance [Ian Hamilton, Gazza Agonistes, Granta, Cambridge, 1993].

The essay does not just recount the story of this rather pathetic, almost tragic, Icarus figure, which is of some, though limited, interest from the psychological and sociological point of view: it takes football seriously as an art form, as something worthy in itself of intellectual consideration and discussion. This is now almost obligatory; and anyone who admitted that he thought anything else would be decried as elitist, snobbish and politically ultramontane.

The writer, Nick Hornby, invites us in a rather knowing way to admire him for having devoted so much of his time, effort, energy and money to football [Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch, Victor Gollancz, London, 1992]. How can such an intelligent person have chosen football as the focus of his existence? The game must be serious if someone like him is so obsessed by it. At the same time, he wants us to admire his cleverness in analysing his own stupidity. There is something almost gnostic in this. Just as the exhibition of great guilt can sometimes be an invitation to consider the guilty person as exceptionally virtuous (for, of course, only a really good person would be capable of so much guilt), so only a really intelligent person could, or would be willing to, lay claim to so much stupidity.

I once had as a patient a girl who had the terrible misfortune to be born intelligent and intellectually curious in an English slum, and who was taunted by other pupils in her school for her academic prowess. "They say I'm stupid," she told me, "because I'm clever." With Mr Hornby, it's the other way round: "I'm clever because I'm stupid." Perhaps shrewd would be a better word than clever.

Even a writer as brilliant, cultivated and scholarly as Tim Parks feels obliged to declare himself a fanatic of the game [Tim Parks, A Season with Verona, Secker and Warburg, London, 2002]. He wrote a book a very good book called A Season with Verona, recounting his experience of attending in a single season every match of his adopted hometown's team, Hellas Verona, in which he makes obeisance to the game itself.

Of course, he recognises that football fills a vacuum left by the absence of religion, political idealism, high culture or aesthetic achievement: but he leaves the overall impression that this doesn't matter very much, because the intellectual and spiritual thin gruel of entertainment by football is sufficient to sustain a life, and in the face of the life's and the universe's meaninglessness, one obsession is as good as another.

And when he implies that he is himself bereft during football's brief absences from the national scene ("we sense a sudden emptiness," as he puts it), he is either admitting the pernicious influence of the sport on his very considerable intellect, or saying something that isn't strictly true, whose meaning is more or less this: yes, I am a man of the greatest talent and erudition, but I tell you that I haven't lost the common touch and thereby become an elitist, because I too shout obscenities from the terrace and am devastated by a goal scored against Hellas Verona.

The fact that football is so popular is probably the reason why the sub-culture it has engendered, at least in England, is the object of such muted criticism. Of course, there has been much adverse comment on the behaviour of violent hooligans, but their behaviour has been thought peripheral to "the beautiful game" (I don't know when the expression first came into general use, but it would now take a brave man to dispute its accuracy, and to point out that the phenomenon of the sport as a whole is not beautiful but ugly). But if any other leisure activity had given rise to a mere fraction of what football regularly gives rise to, there would long have been calls for its outlawry.

In 1991, the editor of Granta, Bill Buford, an American resident in England, published a startling book called Among the Thugs [Bill Buford, Among the Thugs, Secker and Warburg, London, 1991]. He was intrigued by the culture of antisocial behaviour and violence that surrounded football, a sport of which he was ignorant and to whose excitements he proved only moderately susceptible. He insinuated himself into the company of football hooligans by no means people in desperate economic straits, quite the contrary, so poverty is not the key to their behaviour - and subsequently described their horrible exploits.

When he first met these football fans, Mr Buford thought their laddish behaviour only mildly transgressive, and sometimes even amusing, a kind of satire on propriety. But he soon realised that there were boundaries that, if crossed, led to unbridled violence of a deeply repellent nature, and that the laddish behaviour made the crossing of these boundaries very much more likely. He did not prescribe to the cathartic effect of bad behaviour: bad behaviour leads to worse behaviour. Here is his description of one incident, by no means the worst he witnessed, when Manchester United played Juventus in Turin:

Directly in front of me... a young Italian, a boy really, had been knocked down. As he was getting up, an English supporter pushed the boy down again, ramming his flat hand against the boy's face. He fell back and his head hit the pavement, the back of it bouncing slightly.

Two other Manchester United supporters appeared. One kicked the boy in the ribs. It was a soft sound, which surprised me... He was kicked again - this time very hard - and the sound was still soft, muted. The boy reached down to protect himself, and the other English supporter then kicked him in the face... It sounded gritty. The boy tried to get up and he was pushed back down... Another Manchester United supporter appeared and then a third. There were now six, and they all started kicking the boy on the ground... I could tell, from the sound, when someone's shoe missed or when it struck the fingers and not the forehead or the nose...

Two more Manchester United supporters appeared - there must have been eight by now. It was getting crowded and difficult to get at the boy: they were bumping each other and tussling slightly...

The thought of it: eight people kicking the boy at once. At what point is the job completed.

It went on.

... His face was now covered with blood, which came from his nose and mouth, and his hair was matted and wet. The kicking went on. On and on and on, that terrible soft sound, with the boy saying nothing, only wriggling on the ground.

What would be appropriate punishment for these eight cowards who ran away at the sight of one policeman? I confess that, as I read, I thought of the title of that famous, or notorious, early eighteenth century pamphlet, Hanging Not Punishment Enough. And then I thought, these hooligans are drawing me down into a spiral of brutality myself.

It would be nice to suppose that this was an isolated incident, perpetrated by a handful of misfits, but this would be quite wrong. Mr Buford saw thousands of people behave in an appalling way, destroying property, terrifying young and old, and willing to commit thoughtless murder or maim people for life. It is true that since he wrote, the violence associated with football matches has declined, but this is in large part because of the superior organisation of the police. Take the police away, fail to deploy them en masse, and what would happen? This is not an experiment anyone would now be willing to try, for obvious reasons. The underlying characteristics of the football subculture remain.

Two questions: what kind of people need to be treated in this way in order to prevent them from becoming brutes? And what kind of activity is it that so regularly promotes such behaviour? If there is nothing wrong in principle with football as a sport, with two teams of eleven people trying to kick a ball into their opponents' goal, there is obviously something very wrong with it in its current practice. There is nothing inevitable in this: Americans and Australians, after all, are just as enthusiastic about such sports as American football, baseball, and Australian rules football, as the British are about football, and gather in crowds at least as large as those to be found at British football matches, but they hardly need policing, let alone dragooning as if they were prisoners of war.

Why is there so little commentary on this fact? Because it would suggest that there is something deeply unattractive about thousands, perhaps millions, of ordinary people. And in a democratic, not to say demotic, age, it is impermissible to argue that anyone who is not in authority can do wrong. Their tastes, their behaviour, must be good. In other words, forty million English can't be wrong. Truth is not the first casualty of war alone: it is the first casualty of populism.

That populism also explains why a disgracefully regressive tax should have passed unnoticed and unprotested at a time when "social justice" is the clamour of almost ever intellectual. The BBC pays the Football Association approximately 500 million per year for the right to televise its matches: which is to say that it pays a 500 million subsidy from public funds, much of it gathered from people who are not well off, to very rich people who would still be very rich even without it. The only justification of such a public subsidy would be if an activity, deemed worthwhile in itself, ceased to be possible without it. Football does not fit the bill by a wide margin, and yet no one complains.

I was once asked on to a BBC programme to discuss the proposition that fox hunting, being brutal and primitive, had a bad effect on the character and behaviour of those who practised it, and that this bad effect justified outlawing it. I pointed out that any such effect, if it existed, which given the elaborate rules and ritual governing fox hunting was most unlikely, was of tiny social significance compared with the bad effect that football exerted on both its practitioners and its audience. There was a stunned silence in the studio. It was as if I had gone to Mecca and said there was no God. Surely I could not be suggesting that football be banned?

I meant no such thing, of course. What I did mean was that, so long as our footballing subculture is so deeply impregnated with stupidity, vulgarity and violence, it is the inescapable duty of every decent citizen to express no interest in or enthusiasm for it in public whatsoever, even if by doing so those who seek election might gain a few extra votes for being, or pretending to be, one of the lads. A Prime Minister - and a Leader of the Opposition - who says that he's interested in football is telling the population that it's all right to express its inner hooligan.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as an inner city and prison doctor.


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A thought provoking article, and one that will trouble me as I sit quietly enjoying the England game whilst those about me shout obscenities at people on a screen they have never met.

Posted by: Thomas at June 7, 2006 11:04 PM
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I'd second Thomas' view. Far from the knee jerk "football is awful" article one might expect - in fact Dr D displays a close knowledge of the literature of the game. I vaguely recall the good doctor referring to a brief childhood interest in the game - I wonder if this has been retained in some way, and his revulsion at the stupidity and ridiculous hype that surrounds the game, not the game itself?

Posted by: james mcqueen at June 15, 2006 06:40 PM
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One dire consequence of football needs to be explained: the Yugoslav wars. Both the Serbian and Croatian militias responsible for the worst of the gang rapes, genocidal murders, torture and so on were originally gangs of football hooligans. In Britain we have institutionalised tribal violence and the brigades of police discussed in the article prevent actual social breakdown and war from resulting. But the cultural consequences are indeed appalling. It is a juggernaut, and in Spain, Italy and the whole of Latin America we can see the hellish future. There is no excuse for it. Our civilisation has failed.

Posted by: Christopher Lord at March 16, 2007 11:56 PM
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I wonder how much longer the good doctor will be referred to as, 'recently retired'? Is it an indeterminate state before one uses, 'the late Dr...'?

Is it so people can avoid saying, 'retired old git', as if the value of one's comments are dependent upon one's social standing, rather than one's excellent [in its classical sense] mind?

Surely the value's in a person's character and common sense, and not their profession?

Posted by: James Findlayson at June 14, 2010 08:11 AM
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