Wednesday, 26 August 2009


This morning I woke up to the mutterings of sad disapproval on Radio 5 Live from commentators in and around the world of football in the face of the “disgrace to football” that took place around the West Ham v Millwall match at Upton Park last night. I’ll admit my first thought was that they meant the quality of the football on show, but the focus was apparently on the decisions made by the usual pissed up idiots taking it upon themselves to thrust hooliganism back onto the front pages and into the minds of the English moral majority – after a good couple of years of only really existing in variously great (The Football Factory) and rubbish (Green Street) films.

Of course, most football fans know that violence in some form or another happens at (or, more often, outside) matches every weekend. There are still strong firms turning out for the likes of West Ham, Millwall, Cardiff, Leeds, Pompey and the rest – but the feeling, it seems to me, is that it’s not generally reported because it’s no more of a problem than the regular Friday night town centre skirmishes that most of the country endures. Just idiots being idiots as usual, surely?

There was a strange kind of nostalgia about the coverage today, however – the shots of unruly pitch invasions, running battles in East London streets, missiles flying at mounted police officers – that suggested that football in England, despite the (extremely welcome) re-branding and sanitisation process of the last 20 years, is still, when it wants to be, as ugly and scary as it ever was.

Hooliganism, after all, is still English football’s most successful export to the rest of Europe. It is the one area in which the English game is, even now, considered genuinely world class by the rest of the continent. Fans of teams all over Europe (and beyond) give their ‘Ultra’ firms English names, copy slogans and tactics they’ve seen from travelling English teams and hang English-language banners all around their stadia.

For me though, English hooliganism, however influential and bitterly entrenched in history it is, always looks like a bit of a petty schoolyard scuffle compared to some of those whom it’s inspired. A good example, raised in Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book Behind the Curtain, is in Serbia and Croatia around the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s – where rival gangs of football fans fighting was, for want of a better word, pretty bloody important.

The first battle of the war between Serbia and Croatia was, by all accounts, fought during a league game between Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade and Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb; the fighting itself taking place between Red Star’s Ultras (now known as the Delije, or “heroes”) and Dinamo’s Bad Blue Boys (BBB). The Delije’s leader was a man of almost mythical proportions in Serbia (about whom there are so many amazing and improbable stories – if you’ve met me in a pub since I read Behind the Curtain I’ve probably tried to tell you all about them): Arkan.

Arkan, real name Zeljko Raznatovic, was the son of a colonel in Tito’s air force who rebelled from a life of military discipline, going on to lead the Delije before the war and during it recruited from their ranks to form his paramilitary Tigers crew. He was fiercely right wing and became a natural focus for burgeoning nationalism in Serbia, as well as a hero to Red Star’s hooligan element for organising their battles with rival Ultras and groups of Croatian paramilitaries.

These were serious battles, too – The Tigers used acid to burn through security fences, stockpiled rocks and fixed Belgrade number plates onto Croat cars so that the Bad Blue Boys would firebomb their own vehicles. During the ‘first battle’, in 1990, 79 police officers and 59 fans were injured – and hundreds were arrested.

Arkan became more and more popular, unofficially allying himself with Slobodan Milosevic and undoubtedly creating the perfect conditions for Milosevic to become first leader of the Serbian Communist Party and later the tyrannical President of Serbia.

Hooliganism here was a truly political act, it seems. You could argue that it is the same in England – an act of desperate, disenfranchised and just plain bored men raging against each other and the authorities for lack of anything better to do, maybe. Maybe they’re just dicks.

I just want to quote one fantastic Arkan story from Behind the Curtain, however:

“[Arkan’s wedding] was an orgy of kitsch on the theme of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, Arkan dressing as a warrior and Ceca [his pop star bride] as one of the women who had tended the injured. He rode up to her parents’ house on a white charger and, as was customary in the fourteenth century, was asked by her father to prove his worthiness by shooting an apple off the top of the door with a crossbow. His first effort missed, as did his second, and his third, so, before it got too embarrassing, he nodded to his henchmen, who blew it to pulp with Kalashnikovs.”

I just can’t imagine any English hooligan leader having this sense of historical romance or an amazingly inflated sense of military importance when throwing beer bottles and bits of kebab at the police outside Upton Park. The originals they may be, but I wish they’d just shut up and let us watch the football.

(Arkan, with a Tiger and some 'Tigers').


  1. Don't know if I've ever mentioned, but my father and I were at Arkhan's wedding to Cesca.

    Small world, eh?

  2. @willard

    Is that true? It seems fairly plausible, but then so do a lot of things you say... ;)

    Are the facts more or less right then? Seemed like a pretty amazing character.

  3. I'll tell you the whole story over a pint some time.