Monday, November 12, 2007


The Sydney Morning Herald carries a report about soccer rioting in Italy after a fan was killed by a police officer:
Italian police attempting to quell a brawl between rival football fans shot and killed a supporter of a Rome team, sparking riots in four cities and forcing the postponement of several matches.

Groups of youths burned police vehicles near Rome's Olympic Stadium and clashed with police firing tear gas in the northern city of Bergamo. Violence also was reported in Milan and the southern city of Taranto.

Top officials, from the President and Prime Minister to the Mayor of Rome, pleaded for calm. The Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, ordered an investigation into the shooting.

In Rome, youths brandishing metal bars and rocks attacked a police headquarters near the Olympic Stadium and used rubbish bins to block a nearby bridge. They smashed windows and traffic lights and torched a police vehicle and a bus.

Soccer hooliganism has long baffled Americans. We have sports-related violence too, but it is rarer; it has been twenty years since a night of destruction in Detroit after the Tigers won the World Series. Clearly, despite years of effort by law-enforcement authorities, fan violence (unlike, revealingly, violent crime more generally) is a bigger problem in Europe than the U.S.

It is tempting to blame soccer for this, but I think that is a mistake. Soccer and the tribalistic passions it generates are common around the world, but I suspect there is nothing intrinsic about the sport causing European hooliganism in particular. That hooliganism has attached itself to soccer is basically a function of soccer’s popularity; if volleyball were as popular as soccer there would be volleyball hooligans too.

The question of interest is why the hooligan lifestyle exists at all. Hooligans are generally young men in their teens and twenties who are basically full-time soccer thugs, who follow their teams (and national teams) from place to place, looking for opportunities to drink and to brawl with others of like mind but different loyalties.

What is the opportunity cost of such a lifestyle? Historically, young men in their twenties were expected to be supporting at least themselves and, more probably, their growing families. But of course the notion of self-responsibility itself is in decline in all Western countries, but particularly Western Europe, where the welfare state has taken away form individuals much of the basic obligations to provide for oneself. Don’t have a job? Unemployment benefits will look after you. Marry? Why, when a spouse is no longer needed for sustenance in old age, the state provides health care and retirement benefits, and single parenthood or absent fatherhood is just another indistinguishable lifestyle choice?

And so we are presented with the phenomenon of the idle young lad, missing either material or social pressures to settle down, get a job, become a man. If you want to understand hooliganism – young men brawling and rioting over a sports event with drearily predictable regularity – you need look no farther than the messages the surrounding society sends; therein the answer lies. Soccer is everywhere, but hooliganism is only in Europe. The mystery practically solves itself.



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