Football Violence, in Italy and Everywhere
by Brian Phillips · November 12, 2007
There’s a lot we still don’t know about the death of Gabriele Sandri, and a lot we probably never will know. Journalists and bloggers have been diligent in their search for the truth, but the truth in this case is going to be buried by political interests and by the larger interests of football. Whatever conclusion the police inquiry reaches, there is already a sense that it will reflect a political assessment: how can stability be restored without blame being attached to anyone with any real power? There is widespread concern that the police will protect the officer who shot Sandri regardless of the facts, but what seems far more likely is that they will sacrifice the officer who shot Sandri in order to placate the mob and keep the blame from flowing upward. Yesterday the killing was portrayed as an accident; today the police are describing it as manslaughter, with “a possibility that the categorization of the crime…could change for the worse.” I have no knowledge of what happened at that gas station, but the simple fact that the chief of Italian police has had to promise that there will be no cover-up attests to the lack of trust in authority that many have blamed for yesterday’s outbreak of violence.
Online and in the papers, this crisis has been as well-covered as the circumstances will allow, and bloggers at The Offside, Spangly Princess and Pitch Invasion deserve enormous credit for collecting all the strands of this rapidly changing story in one place. But what I want to look at is our attraction to the crisis itself. What is it about football violence that we find so irresistibly fascinating? As ready as we are to condemn it, don’t we seem to be drawn to it in a way we seldom discuss? Why is it that fans who would never participate in violent behavior themselves still feel their hearts beat a little faster when they see a story about brawls outside a stadium? Why do so many people seem to take a voyeurish delight in documentaries about hooliganism and Heysel? We deplore this sort of thing in every conceivable way, and yet, in one of those parts of ourselves that we listen to but don’t talk about, we seem to find it strangely exciting.
I’ve made the case before that one of the reasons we’re attracted to sports is that it provides with a safe outlet for some of the violent impulses that civilization requires us to repress. It lets us experience the thrill of conflict without having to risk the consequences. That’s one of the useful functions of football, arguably, but it also means that there’s something uncivilized, something primitive or primal, running under the surface of our involvement with it. It’s this that FIFA is keen to disguise with its slogans about friendship and its endless children and doves. What fascinates us about violence, I think, is that it seems to lift the cover off our preoccupation with sports and show us the underground truth. Hooligans with switchblades give an extreme and actual expression to a feeling that for most of us is moderate and virtual. And so, if we let ourselves, we can begin to see a kind of twisted authenticity in a crowd of men throwing rocks at the police.
But when we go that far, I think, we’re making a mistake. (And most of us evidently know this, since few of us would ever admit how easy it would be to go that far.) I think the lead-pipe wielders are caught in exactly the same error as the FIFA stuffed-animal brigade, only they make it in the opposite direction. The thrill of sports is not simply in making contact with a repressed dark side of ourselves, but in feeling that current in ourselves transformed by the game into something creative and celebratory. That can’t happen if we pretend that football is all goodness and light. But it can’t happen if we pretend that it’s all trench warfare, either.
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