Daniel Wolf

England’s thugs and losers

Daniel Wolf says that the English are bad at football and brilliant at hooliganism because of an attitude of mind, a national cringe, which has its roots in the Industrial Revolution

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The Portuguese police are donning their riot gear, the café owners are boarding up their premises and the locals are telling each other, ‘Don’t go down to the square, the English are coming....’ It’s Euro 2004, and the English have already arrived. They are sitting in clumps around the fountain, groups of pink, misshapen men, wearing St George T-shirts and shellsuit bottoms or shorts. Some are glum, nursing a can of beer as consolation for a lost wallet or a night spent in the park. Others are jovial, the kind of men who think it a lark to try to dance with passing women or moon the Italian supporters drinking coffee underneath the awnings across the square. And there’s a group who are staring angrily, red-faced, up for it, whachewfuckinlookinat?

The football hooligan is one of those indelible images of England which the world carries in its mind. Even Donald Rumsfeld, maintaining that reports of lawlessness in Iraq had been exaggerated, said, ‘We know what happens at a soccer game in England.’ Over the years, snowfalls of words have been expended on this tribe of ugly Englishmen, but all that is left is a slush of puzzlement. Why do they do it? What do they tell us about ourselves, if anything? England is not the only country that produces football thugs, but ours remain far and away the brand leaders. They were the first, they have been the most persistent and they have caused the most destructive, sometimes tragic confrontations.

Hooligans are the most visible puzzle of English football, but not the only one. Why are the English at once so passionate about football and, relatively, so unsuccessful at it (to quote Baddiel and Skinner’s iconic song — ‘Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming’)? England’s lack of success at football is the stuff of legend: England has won one significant international competition; since 1966, we have failed to reach the final of a single World Cup or European Championship. Check out the Fifa world rankings — an erratic guide, but a guide nonetheless. Going back a decade, to 1993, England’s average position has been 11th. Despite huge interest and massive investment in our game, we have been ranked below Germany in every one of those years, and below Italy in all but three. Our low has been stunningly low — 27th.

Of course, we may now win Euro 2004, but the questions will remain. The questions keep coming. Why is the number of foreign players in English Premier League clubs — currently 268 — higher than in comparable European leagues? Why are so few English players taken on by European clubs? Why has the current Arsenal side had so much more success in England than in Europe? Finally, why is England the only major soccer-playing nation with a foreign national as manager (unless you count Portugal, with a Brazilian manager)?

Some of the best clues are buried in anecdotes. There is, for instance, the wonderment at the success of Arsène Wenger. To sports journalists and ‘football people’, it seems as if Wenger comes from a different planet, which, in some ways, he does, but the mythologies that surround him tell us as much about ourselves as they do about him. It is often said that Wenger had a negligible playing career, yet it is untrue: he was a defender in the Strasbourg team that won the French Championship in 1979. Again, David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, speaks in breathless tones of his manager’s commitment to the job, how he is always glued to videos of matches and will channel-hop satellite coverage of games around the world into the small hours. Yet only in English football would this be considered remarkable: it is merely the professionalism of a professional, the commitment that would be expected of a highly paid executive in any business.

What makes Wenger stand out is that he is a thoughtful and informed man in a business which is run by some bizarre, instinctual and occasionally distinctly dim ones.

On the other side of the ledger, there is Ron Atkinson — football pundit and former manager — who was recently heard on an open mike calling Marcel Desailly, Chelsea’s French defender, ‘what is known in some schools as a fucking thick lazy nigger’. Or David Pleat, recently sacked as director of football at Tottenham, ruminating this spring on foreign managers: ‘They have a different philosophy. They come for a period of time, they sign an agreement, they are gypsy-like in their mentality....’ And on foreign players: ‘Chelsea has a bought team ...at the moment they are a team of immigrants.’ Reading this saloon-bar drivel, you can only ask: what planet are these guys living on?

There are many questions, but the answers all lead back to the same source — the culture that has shaped not only the English game, but also certain corners of English life. Return to those football supporters, draped in the flag of St George, arriving in Portugal. If some ‘start a ruck’, they will be —- according to the journalists who will cover the story — ‘mindless idiots who are spoiling it for the vast majority of law-abiding supporters’. After a quarter of a century of riots in some of Europe’s loveliest cities, the words have a ring of easy truth that hides untruth. Other journalists will tell you that the hooligans are led by white-collar thugs searching for excitement, like Ed Norton and Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Again, there is some truth in that, but only some.

The real story is that they are Englishmen of a certain type, abroad. And if, by dint of banning orders or bail conditions — by a massive expenditure of police effort in Britain and Portugal — they fail to ‘get into trouble’ in Portugal, they won’t vanish off the face of the earth. They’ll still be around, and you won’t have to go abroad to meet them, either. You can be introduced to them on any Saturday night, in pretty much any town centre, anywhere in the country. They are our face in the mirror. The triangular connection between the hooligans, the football that is played on the pitch and the men behind the scenes — managers and commentators like Pleat and Atkinson — is not easy to define, but that doesn’t mean there is no connection. It is only too visible.

Who, then, is this bloated, drunken, racist creature staring back at us from the mirror? Where does he come from? From the past. To understand the special nature of England’s favourite game, and the ancestry of its least attractive ambassadors, we need to go back, at the very least, to the Industrial Revolution. The English are different, and one good reason for it is that our Industrial Revolution was different: it was the first and, therefore, the longest. Drawn into the cities, bound to the mechanical rhythms of mass production, the English working classes suffered from generation to generation without seeing tangible rewards for their toil. No European working class experienced so long an immersion in the rigours of the factory system with so little apparent gain.

In the century and more of England’s slow industrialisation, attitudes were frozen, congealed, into a resilient, obdurate, sometimes recalcitrant approach to daily existence. While this approach was refracted through the different cultures that accompanied industrialisation — through the many shadings of non-conformism, through the various tinges of socialism, through the sense of dispossession felt by those who lay beyond the pale of respectability — there was also some residue, some sedimentary attitude that remained in the dregs of the common experience. This attitude valued the collective over the individual, the tried-and-tested over the ‘n ew-fangled’, the heart over the head, effort over talent, character over achievement. It was a mentality that, at its best, stood for an admirable sense of community and power of endurance; at its worst, it could curdle into rancid xenophobia and unthinking resistance to change.

We live in history. The forces that shaped us no longer exist, but we can still feel their grip as we try to loosen their hold on our ankles. Over the years, that grip was reinforced by other historical experiences, ones that penetrated all classes, all corners of our national existence. If the English are different, another reason for it is that part of our national complex is to see ourselves as victors. The Empire offered Englishmen and women a largely unearned sense of superiority — red blotches on the map, the sense of being ‘top dog’. When the Empire was dismantled, it left behind a carapace of pride covering a void of self-doubt. The world wars produced a similarly unearned sense of victory in those who inherited the victories. In obvious ways, these memories of glory, of a distinct destiny, still shape our consciousness, from our suspicion of ‘Europe’ to the dispatch of our forces to Iraq. By contrast, almost every other European nation is marked by the experience of defeat. Defeat is a powerful thing. If you learn one lesson from defeat, it is that next time you should do it differently.

The legacy of these different histories stands out in the game of football as it does in other troublesome areas of our national life (in our education system, our health service, our transport network, to give three examples). When we started out, it was all so simple. We expressed our relish for the game in words like ‘pride’, ‘passion’, ‘character’, injunctions like ‘get stuck in’ and ‘get rid of it’, and judgments like ‘fancy dan’, ‘luxury player’ and ‘making the most of it’ (this last is usually applied to foreign players feigning injury or diving; we are often told by television pundits that they have imported ‘play acting’ into our game, and seduced English players into imitating them).

Over the past half-century, the English have had time to get used to the idea that there are other ways of thinking about the game, other ways of playing it, but there is still a certain ambivalence in the face of the facts. We no longer call our league the best in the world — how can we when only one of our teams, Manchester United, has won the Champions League since it started in 1992? But we do often hear our league tagged, with evident desperation, ‘the most exciting league in the world’. Suspended between misplaced self-confidence and palpitating insecurity, we remain a little bewildered. Despite strenuous efforts to modernise, the regressive tendencies remain. When Kevin Keegan took over the national team in 1999, he went into the old triumphalist routine about ‘passion’ and ‘character’, but somewhere along the road to the new Jerusalem he admitted that he was ‘a little bit short at this level’. The honesty was refreshing. Unfortunately, he was right.

Why, then, do Premier League teams have a higher proportion of foreign players than Europe’s other major leagues? One answer is that on the whole they’re cheaper in the transfer market, but another is that they’re often smarter, with a better sporting and general education than their English counterparts. The influx has shown that English clubs are pragmatic in search of success; it has also highlighted the limitations of the home-grown product. Those same limitations explain why relatively few English players have been transferred to foreign clubs and why, in the past, they have often failed when they did go (although there have been notable exceptions, like Tony Woodcock, Gary Lineker and, recently, Steve McManaman; the jury’s still out on Beckham’s sojourn in Madrid).

And why is the current Arsenal side more successful in England than in Europe? Wake up there at the back of the class — this stuff really isn’t hard: Arsenal is one of the few sides in England which is wholeheartedly committed to the contemporary European style, emphasising pace, power, precision, awareness, pressing the side with the ball, exploding on the counter-attack when the ball is won back. In England — with good players, better coached and organised than their few local competitors — they sweep all before them. In Europe, the successful teams play in a similar style, and know how to play against it. Arsenal’s advantage — even with players as glorious as Henry and Vieira — is thereby greatly reduced.

So why do we have Sven as our national manager? Surely you don’t need to ask.

Daniel Wolf is a television producer and Spurs supporter.