Some time around the age of nine or ten I’m in the playground at primary school. I’m talking to a classmate. I’m incredulous at what he’s just told me. One of only two other Manchester United supporters in my year, he has just told me that they’re rubbish, he doesn’t like them anymore and he’s going to start supporting the dominant force in English football, Liverpool.
Now I guess these days I would have mocked him for being a bandwagoning glory hound but as I have pointed out before, this wasn’t a concept that was truly raised to me until my own team started winning league titles.
The only (tragically flawed) argument I could muster came via a reputation cemented by the recent Heysel disaster: “But Liverpool fans are violent!”. He simply responds that “Man Utd has violent fans too!”. He’s not wrong. No club truly had the moral high ground on the issue of fan violence at British football matches at the time. What stands out to me is that children with only roughly a decade of life apiece to draw on, saw hooliganism as a mark against a given football club.
It is therefore baffling to me that in the modern age, I still hear grown men who while lamenting violence in the game, can’t help but express veiled, guilty admiration toward groups that indulge in such behavior. “Those guys are crazily passionate”, “They’re nuts. [Insert rabid football nation here] fans take their support seriously”. Even Enner Valencia felt that while the movie Green Street had him nervous about what to expect ahead of his move to West Ham, it gave the impression of passionate fans.
I question this attitude. Actually, “questioning” it is a softening of my stance. For most of my life, I have made a point of cutting hooligans absolutely no slack. They are undoubtedly a blight on the game. They hurt it. That now relatively rare incidents in UK football are still met with headshaking and scoffs of “typical!”, shows that the 70s and 80s left a stain. Of course members of firms or ultras past and present will point out the willingness to risk physical well-being, even their lives for their clubs. Perhaps then, this is passion, devotion, even love for their team, expressed in a twisted, misguided fashion.
But then I’m reminded that last time West Ham played Millwall, some of their fans got into an organised mass brawl, away from the stadium while the game was being played. For me, if there is one prerequisite for being a passionate supporter of any sports team, it’s actually watching their matches. If you’re arranging to miss the game to dish out Chelsea smiles in a back alley, how is what you’re doing truly connected to the sport or team?
This leads me back to my long-held belief that the football aspect is somewhat incidental; that if these particular folk had been born into a world without football, they would have probably just brawled over something else.
Fast forward to a recent notification to LA Galaxy Supporters Group “The Angel City Brigade” that due to streamers being thrown onto the field at the MLS Cup final and “past incidents” they would be banned for eight games from using their usual regalia (flags poles, banners, drums, tifo).
This doesn’t really fall within the sphere of “hooliganism” and the general consensus is that this action is heavy handed. It does however, shuffle me neatly over to the concept of fan behaviour in MLS and the aforementioned “passionate fan” misnomer that gets cheaply bestowed on glorified thugs.
Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think MLS has a prevalent hooligan problem. I can also state with confidence that none of the ACB, “The LA Riot Squad”, “The Galaxians” or “The Ticket Oaks Titans of Terror” have any focus on violence whatsoever.
I actually find it a bit disingenuous when US media focuses on the link between tragic events at football matches and the sport itself, given that since I have lived in California, there have been stabbings at college football games, a fan beaten almost to death at a baseball game, and rioting and looting happening after both the Laker’s most recent NBA title wins. These are routinely described as tragic incidents that happened to occur in or around sporting events.
I am aware however, that there have been scuffles at MLS games based on nothing more than rooting for opposite teams. As the Galaxy closed in on their third title at the 2011 MLS Cup final, I looked on in disappointment as the Houston Dynamo section started lighting smoke bombs and throwing them (among other things) onto the field.
I have long been a positive advocate of MLS Supporters Groups and singing sections. They are a target for cynics who want to accuse them of manufactured faux fandom. Frankly, I completely understand why people would want to try to replicate some of the atmosphere of football matches around the world. It’s an appealing aspect of the game. It’s not like every fan at every game in Europe or South America at the weekend isn’t emulating tradition themselves anyway.
What bothers me though, is this idea that as well as showing your support and enthusiasm for your team via chants, songs, flags, banners and scarves, is the tendency in some to see it go hand-in-hand with the hooligan aspect.
Green Street Hooligans was a stupid film that took a tragic storyline in which people lose their lives as a result of football violence, then conspires at the end, to glorify the whole concept. The closing scenes show how Elijah Wood use his experiences as a hooligan to finally find the courage to stand up for himself.
There are fan groups in MLS that slap the word “Hooligan” and “Ultra” in their titles, with scant appreciation for what it may connotate. I once pointed this out to a member of such a group, the Columbus Crew’s “Hudson Street Hooligans”. The guy brushed it off and assured me that it was a very intentionally “tongue-in-cheek” name and I accepted his explanation. Even now, I’m sure that for those who came up with it and for the majority of members of that group, that’s all it is.
However, incidents such as the MLS Cup one described above, as well as various scuffles that I won’t dignify by outlining here, do suggest that for some, those lines get blurred. Some of it is of course, young men drinking too much and passions running high. At the same time, the hooligan connection means that this is something that must be kept in check.
The fact is, there is nothing admirable in two guys beating the shit out of each other over a sports team. That’s not passion or dedication, that’s a willful loss (or relinquishing) of self-control. The creation of a loud and vibrant atmosphere is something the game is known for. In many ways a real tradition. There is no need for it to go hand in hand with violence or misbehaviour.
No blog entry is going to get MLS Supporters Groups to change their names. I ask that they bear them with responsibility. Know that there’s little credibility to be had in the image of “Ultra Wannabe”. Be vigilant that your members never fall into activities that literally fit your “tongue-in-cheek” moniker.
Given that my readership is hardly more than a few forum posters, friends and family, I’m probably preaching to the choir in asking people to make no place in their football lives for violence.
Nonetheless, let’s stop glorifying these idiots. I see more passion and dedication in the guy who stands quietly on the terraces, his stomach churning as he lives and breathes every kick of the ball, than the guy who brandishes a knife on a nearby wasteland, getting set to put his or someone else’s body on the line over match that he doesn’t even know the score of.