“Malice hung heavily in the air, along with the stench of horse shit and hot-dog fumes.”
By the time that European soccer reached American shores in earnest, the game was a sanitized version of its former self. In the U.S., the sport is often viewed as “soft,” especially in comparison to the game we know as football, and the modern game often makes this notion hard to deny. But England and the rest of Europe know that this is a fairly recent phenomenon. The game of just a generation ago was marked by real venom, both on and off the pitch. You can’t watch a Premier League match without a commentator noting wistfully that a yellow card tackle wouldn’t even have been a foul some 25 years ago. And along with two-footed tackles, crowd violence has mostly been left in the past in top-level soccer.
In 1999, Martin King wrote Hoolifan: 30 years of Hurt with the help of Martin Knight. The subtitle might lead you to believe that this is a Fever Pitch-esque book about the trauma of fandom, but “hurt” here is meant quite physically. King was a Chelsea supporter through the 70s and 80s, the peak of hooliganism in the English game. Here he provides some insight into that experience.
There’s a surprising amount of fashion obsession here. As the years go by, so do the fashion trends, and for King dressing well seems to have been a major concern. Nary a chapter goes by without some sort of detail as to the Chelsea firm were wearing. It seems a bit silly, considering these were men whose main hobby was fighting at soccer games, but things like this help to humanize King.
But let’s be honest. Beyond the early chapters, which contain some fond childhood memories of family and his love for the game, King writes most about the fights. And for a chapter or two this is fun, but there’s only so much to be said here. King’s prose, littered with slang, doesn’t elevate these battles beyond the mundane. Considering that they occurred on a near-weekly basis for years, perhaps that’s the point. But combined with the fact that King rejects analysis of hooliganism beyond “it’s an excuse for a good ruck,” and it feels devoid of meaning. Why should I read this?
To that, I’d say that because, if you can get beyond the reliving of King’s glory days, Hoolifan serves as a useful window into a world that doesn’t really exist anymore. Soccer hooliganism never arrived in the U.S., and due to the distances between cities, violence hasn’t marked any of our other sports. So there’s a genuine value in the exploration here. Along the way, King lobs some legitimate criticisms at the way hooligans were handled by both police and the media, and not without some anger.