It’s going to go off.
The phrase is repeated over and over again in a chapter called Turin in Among The Thugs. It’s after a soccer match between Manchester United and Juventus. Author Bill Buford is pressed tightly against English “supporters,” all of them hemmed in by each other and a locked gate, waiting to be let out of the stadium by the Turin police.
There is much to be said about pace and repetition in story development, and Buford spends about a page and a half hinting at what is about to happen after the gates open up.
“It’s going to go off,” he keeps hearing the United fans saying. He hears them talking about knives. They say “Stay together, zip up your coat.”
When they are let out of the stadium, all two thousand or so supporters start into a light jog through the city. Buford doesn’t know what to think at first. Then, after several blocks, the group stops and turns around. Turin residents have been following them. The United fans charge and start breaking windows and everything else in their path. Worst of all, the United supporters run over the Italians, both young and old, picking off stragglers and stomping their faces into a bloody pulp.
Published in 1991, Buford wrote the book after spending several years with English football hooligans in the 1980s. He started going to matches while still studying at Cambridge as an American abroad. For most of the book he hangs around Manchester United supporters, but he also mingles with West Ham and Chelsea hooligans, who all fight with each other over the course of the book. Accounts of the destructive fans are accompanied by the author’s interpretation of crowd violence at its truest form.
Much like the author’s original premise, I assumed hooligans were of Great Britain’s downtrodden working class, struggling to get by. But during this era of football hooliganism — 60s and 70s are a different story — Buford found that many of these young (teens to early 30s) Englishmen had steady jobs and were not without a future.
So why did they break everything in sight, steal, stab each other and kick in each other’s teeth on match days? It’s hard to say.
Buford asserts that it is partly because they were a generation of the working class that didn’t really belong to anything important or special. He writes that they were “members of the first non-working class working class generation.” The reason being, much like the U.S., Great Britain’s industrial jobs were fading away by the 1980s.
Buford cites Gustave Le Bon and Edmund Burke’s theories about crowd violence and disagrees partially, pointing out that they tend to attribute “other” when talking about the crowd and mob mentality. After watching football hooligans, Buford finds that it can be anyone. He finds himself being wrapped up in the adrenaline and excitement of it all.
There’s a threshold that has to be broken, Buford realizes. In many cases he notes a window being broken, or an individual taking the first step, which is soon followed by the rest. And even though there are leaders, it takes the actual crowd to act as one for anything to begin to happen.
It’s not until the end that Buford finds just how bad a beating can be. I was anticipating it every time he was in the middle of a brawl between supporters. But it didn’t happen until the end and it wasn’t supporters.
The sequence of events is equally horrific as it is comical at times. Buford’s descriptions of the hooligans are great. He describes a tooth of one United leader as being the color of pea soup green. A lad he meets in a pub bathroom, as Keith Richards during the worst time, “long, leathery, lined face; the druggy offhand manner; the endless cigarettes.”
This book is a compelling read and I recommend it to anyone interested in sports, sociology, psychology, history or journalism. It was very hard to put down and my own adrenaline kicked in many times on quiet afternoons last week.