Taking it to extremes


Natalie Voorheis delves into the frightening world of the football extremists, a world away from the ‘Ultras’

The origin of the term ‘hooligan’ is uncertain, but there are a number of variant theories. One common strain through these theories lies in the connection of the term hooligan with the Irish family name of Hooligan, or O’Holligan, and the metamorphosis of the connotations of this name in media of the late 1800s as a result of the misdemeanours of Irish migrant workers in London.

Sports fanaticism and its resulting violent behaviour has, however, long preceded the denomination of such acts as hooliganism. The link between football and violence can be traced back for centuries as far as the 1300s – King Edward II banned the sport in 1314 because of the violent behaviour associated with its players and spectators.

Throughout history, football fans have been marked out as more emotionally charged and violent than fans of any other sport. The charged atmosphere of a football match is one which remains unbeaten in the sporting world, and which provides a platform for expression of emotions felt intensely by supporters.

Dedicated football fans often consider themselves the twelfth member of their team. Their encouragement of team players through mantras and banners, the intimidation of opposing players, and the creation of the atmosphere in which each match is played out constitutes a crucial factor in the outcome of the match.

Football fanatics are, by definition, completely emotionally invested in the game. Where else, after all, is it completely normal to see a man blubber like a baby in anguish, or kiss his mate in utter exhaltation?

The language of sports – which has for centuries united a brotherhood of men – lends itself to intense scrutiny when hooliganism and extremist behaviour become normal in the functioning of this brotherhood. It makes one question whether, in fact, violence is the real language of sports.

The fraternal nature of the relationship between fans serves to intensify the feelings of animosity to opposing leading, inevitably to violence.

Fired up fans, a fixture at almost every sporting event, pose a serious threat to the well being of other supporters. Situations often escalate from friendly banter to full-scale disasters in a matter of moments. In recent decades incidents such as the Heysel Stadium Disaster have put a black mark against football supporters, specifically those of British clubs.

The Heysel Disaster, which occurred just before the kick off of the 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus in Heysel Stadium, Brussels resulted in the deaths of 39 fans and the injury of over 600. Small-scale disquiet between the rival teams’ supporters had spiralled into a full advance from the Liverpool side, charging into the Juventus supporters’ area. The Juve fans, trapped between the onslaught of angry opposing fans and a concrete wall, began to flee over the wall which was unable to support the sudden huge weight and collapsed, crushing many of them.

The intense media coverage of sports related hooligan behaviour serves to highlight the depressing reality of the prevalence of such hooligans in the world of sports and their strong influence over proceedings of a game.

The hooliganism of the 1970s and 1980s in the UK has been hailed as some of the worst in the history of sports. Descriptively termed The English Disease, this period in sports history is marked by deaths and injuries as a result of rioting and violence during games.

The all-out physical riots of this period were severely cracked down upon by the British government. Since this crackdown a new form of hooliganism has emerged. In more recent decades, brawls between fans have become somewhat of an organised sport in themselves, with supporters who align themselves to groups (not unlike gangland cells) and termed ‘firms’ pre-organise fights between one another in a location away from the stadium itself either before or after the actual match so as to avoid police interference.

Football clubs will have a number of these hooligan firms associated with them, each intent on a battle with those firms connected with opposing clubs. This newer form of hooligan is less concerned with the subject of football and more with the finding and fighting of rival firms and generally causing unrest at matches. This coincides with a rise in a hooligan culture. These are men marked not just by their passion for the game but by their choice of dress, social haunts, accents and general rowdy behaviour. The Bushwackers of Millwall, The Inter City Firm of West Ham United, and The Leeds United Service Crew are among the most notorious of these firms.

It’s a far cry from the bunch of lads making up songs and chants to get the home crowd in the spirit at the Belfield Bowl.