Longtime readers of this blog will know of my love of the game of football (or, if you must, soccer). I have been a follower of Liverpool FC of the English Premier League for close to a decade and the allure of football culture, from the pace and exhilaration of a match against bitter rivals to the songs, chants, and pageantry of the supporters themselves, has become an important part of my life. I probably spend more hours a week watching matches and reading about football than I do any other activity. One of the first lessons a new Liverpool fan learns is the story of two disasters brought on by fan violence, and how the club, the most successful in the history of English football, was banned from European competition for five years (along with all English football clubs).
On May 29, 1985 Liverpool played Juventus is the European Cup final in Heysel, Belgium. After a group of Liverpool fans began to clash with Juventus fans, disaster struck, and the retaining walls fencing in the mostly Italian fans gave way, leading to 39 people being crushed or trampled to death. After Heysel, all English football clubs were banned from European competition for five years. In 1989, still in the under the ban, Liverpool was once again involved in a tragedy when playing an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest F.C. at Hillsborough . When a wave of supporters swamped the small stadium, police routed the Liverpool supporters into a section of the ground far too small for the number of people arriving, crushing 96 Liverpool fans to death against a retaining fence.
As a supporter of Liverpool, one must instantly come to grips with the impact of fan violence (in the case of Heysel) and of the importance of managing the supporters (in the case of Hillsborough). Of course, Liverpool are not alone. Nowhere near. In his amazing book Among The Thugs, the author Bill Buford outlines his own adventures among the rumbling, rioting supporters of Manchester United. Buford's gripping account of the Man U 'firms' (the name for the gangs of supporters that identify themselves with their favorite football clubs) running riot in the streets of Italy is a must read. But the issue of fan violence and abuse is by no means a tale set solely in the 1980's, and is by no means only an English problem. Just yesterday, in Sofia, Bulgaria, CSKA Sofia fans shouted racist abuse at Liverpool striker Djibril Cisse.
On the other hand, there is a strange romance associated with football violence. As stupid as that sentence sounds when pitted against the reality of fan violence and the impact it has had on the lives of those affected by it, the game of football has embraced the reality of a subculture of drunken, rough and tumble supporters brawling with one another. Call it tough love, but in terms of romance, Lexi Alexander's SXSW winning film Green Street Hooligans goes as far as anything to embracing the passionate appeal of fan violence.
Odds and Sods: The GSE, Ready To Rumble
A former member of the City Boys firm of Mannheim, Germany, Alexander is a second-degree black belt who has apparantly seen her share of football brawling. In her director's statement on the film, Alexander discusses her own attraction to the lifestyle of the firm:
"Contrary to common belief, most of us went to the best schools, had money and lived in big houses. What we didn't have were available parents. What we missed at home, we found in each other, in our firm. The riots were about proving our love, because obviously a bunch of guys don't walk around telling each other 'I love you man'� If only ten people decide to add loyalty, reliability, consistency, and protectiveness to their character attributes, I'll be a happy filmmaker."
If you want a primer on the allure of the mob, you won't do much better than Green Street Hooligans. The film idealizes the ideal of being a 'mate' (friend) and the addictive power of violence. Like a cross between David Fincher's Fight Club (without the schizophrenic mindfuck or the satire) and the mod culture classic Quadrophenia , Hooligans embraces the code of masculinity by attaching it to the individual immersion in a subculture of group violence. An American journalism student expelled from Harvard for a crime he didn't commit, Matt (Elijah Wood) heads to London to visit his ex-pat sister, Shannon (Claire Forlani) and her husband Steve (Marc Warren). Matt meets Pete (Charlie Hunnam, a star in the making), Steve's younger brother, who is forced to take Matt to a football match between Birmingham and Pete's favorite team, West Ham United. Favorite is a massive understatement; Pete, it turns out, is in charge of the GSE (Green Street Elite), West Ham's very own firm. After the match, Matt decides to avoid trouble and begins to walk home alone when members of the Birmingham firm jump him. Pete and the GSE come to the rescue and soon an all out brawl ensues, with Matt taking a punch and surprisingly holding his own. Matt wins the respect of the GSE and begins to embrace his own inner thug. For Matt, the attraction of violence becomes overwhelming "once you take a punch and realize you aren't made of glass."
Who Are Ya?: The GSE Taunt Man U Supporters (then again, who doesn't?)
Alexander does an excellent job of filming the brawls and fighting, but the film itself has an unfortunate tendency to slip into heavy melodrama, which is never too far removed from most sports films. In this case, the film's main plot conflict revolves around Matt's journalistic credentials (members of the firms don't trust journalists) and a surprise revelation. In the final fight sequence, Alexander loses the adrenaline and instead surrenders the film to a heavy-handed resolution that, despite paying off the dodgy plot, simply doesn't satisfy because it seeks to turn the film into a cautionary tale. As a Hollywood calling card, this may not be a bad thing, as Alexander proves she can kick ass with the best of them while delivering just the sort of moralizing the studio suits love to lap up. The film is by no means a call to arms or an incitement, but I have to admit, walking out of the theater, my chest was puffed up and I was full of adrenaline; I felt almost invincible. Only when I put the violence in its proper context was I able to see that the film was more than just an entertaining couple of hours in the lives and deaths of the football gangs, it was a celebration of the mob.
Full Time Report: Millwall 1-0 West Ham
But maybe that is too much responsibility to place on the film. In the context of international violence on the whole, as depicted in film after film glorifying violence in war, law enforcement, and organized crime, what's a little brawl between football fans? Instead, I wish Alexander had stuck to her guns and celebrated the culture she so clearly loves, without the melodramatic hooks. The reality is, the film, like its characters, only comes alive when it is breaking bottles on skulls and throwing blood-soaked punches. Alexander's decision to martyr her characters in the name of caution is a responsible choice given the morbid history of football violence, but artistically, it is clear her heart doesn't beat for the ramifications of violence; only for its thrills. In her statement, Alexander proves that she adores the code of the firm, that she celebrates the ideals of the gang, regardless of the violence to which those ideals invariably lead. In the film, as in real life, the code of the firm leads directly to tragedy. If only Alexander felt the loss as deeply as she felt the thrills of the battle, Green Street Holligans might have been great. As it stands, the film is a fun look at a violent subculture (I'm no prude), but delivers the titilation of violence without an honest sense of outrage.