When Bill Buford started investigating the extreme violence among the soccer “firms” in the UK he was, newly an American in England and as a result looked upon as an outsider when approaching members of the different groups. His continued attendance at soccer matches, presence at several brawls between the firms and other soccer fans, and dogged perseverance led to him becoming more accepted as part of them, and he eventually gained access to the leaders of these ultra-violent clubs. Buford started out wanting to understand everything about the culture of the firms and what motivated their ultra-violent behavior, but by the end he seemed to be as involved in the culture as the other members.
I was shocked by the violence in this book and completely horrified by the behavior of these most ardent soccer fans. Though these men chose the life of being in these firms and fighting amongst one another- which is appalling enough, they often brought innocent bystanders into the fray. The willful destruction of property along with the lack of respect they had for the establishments they visited, and the people that waited upon them, were extreme. I cringed while reading the entire book- there were several violent beatings that made you wonder if the person could have possibly have escaped without being extremely disfigured or handicapped for life, if indeed they were able to survive at all. This was coupled with the destruction of property, excessive drinking and aggressive acts towards women. It is hard to talk about because the events that occurred and the level of violence is so fantastical as to almost not be believed.
I was ambivalent about the author’s role in reporting on what he saw and where he went, and was acutely conscious of my own complicity while reading this book. As it progresses he was more deeply involved with the soccer hooligans and swept along in the power of the crowd- enjoying the adrenaline rush of each mounting situation. I could see his excitement about being one of the boys and was disturbed by it, but aware that I wouldn’t be privy to this information without his investigation. At the same time I don’t think equal consideration was given to finding the underlying causes and motivations of the violence, nor to any of the solutions which law enforcement might have be been considering contain the firms. One of the things that made this book so scary is the groups seemed to be unchecked and virtually unstoppable, and it was much like a weekend job for the participants. Through the week they held down jobs, which though blue collar were usually highly paid, and had families.
Some of the firms were linked to virulently nationalistic groups that pretty much hated everybody, and had no qualms with using deadly force against those not fitting into their definitions of what was racially or culturally acceptable. Buford attended their meetings, only leaving when overcome with disgust for their politics and violence. He would eventually stop his investigation of the firms when he reached a breaking point, considered just how deeply he had become immersed in the life. He was overwhelmed by what he sought to understand.
I read this book as a part of an investigation into Newsweek’s claims that they had 50 Books for Our Times. I have gone back and forth whether I think Among the Thugs is one of them, and I think I have decided that it is. While it may not have provided the reassurance that there are workable solutions to mob mentality and group violence, Among the Thugs certainly provided a startling overview of the situation, and definitely paints and indelible picture in the mind. It’s a book that I will not soon forget.