Final Word

Where do hooligans come from?


In recent years sport fans, especially in soccer, unhappy with how a game goes, have often turned into violent hooligans. But it is nothing new.

We have seen the phenomenon rear its ugly head again last week during an African Nations Cup semi-final between Ghana and Equatorial Guinea. In Egypt authorities postponed the Egyptian Premier League indefinitely after at least 20 people were killed when violence erupted at a match in Cairo.

The phenomenon of crowd violence at sport occasions was first recorded almost 1 500 years ago in the year 532 when two chariot racing associations, the Blues and the Greens, clashed in Constantinople in what became known as the Nika riots. It lasted almost a week, nearly half the city was burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people were killed.

Soccer and violence

The reputation of soccer, itself a relatively violence-free game on the field compared to a game like rugby, developed a particularly bad reputation in more recent history, starting with the regular incidents of crowd violence at football matches in the United Kingdom during the 1970s.

At the time it led to a general saying that soccer was a game played by gentlemen and watched by hooligans and rugby, a game played by hooligans and watched by gentlemen.

However, crowd violence seems to be ingrained in the DNA of UK football fans, going back to its earliest days. In 1314, King Edward II banned football, when unruly activity involving rival villages kicking a pig's bladder across the local heath often erupted. He was afraid that the disorder surrounding matches might lead to social unrest.

The mid- to late 19th and early 20th centuries seem to have been a particularly bad time for UK football, with an outbreak of conflict during an 1846 match in Derby. During the 1880s “pitch invasions” became a common occurrence and gangs of supporters intimidated neighbourhoods and attacked referees and opposing supporters and players.

In 1886 Preston fans fought Queen's Park fans in a railway station and 1905 a “drunk and disorderly” 70-year-old woman was among a number of Preston fans tried for hooliganism after a match against Blackburn Rovers.

Hooligans and hooliganism

The words ‘hooligan’ and ‘hooliganism’ first came into fairly common use during that same period starting in the late 19th century. The first use was in connection with the activities of juvenile street gangs in the Lambert area of central London. One of the better known gangs called themselves the Hooligan Boys.

Most sources give as the first use in writing of ‘hooligan’, in the criminal sense of the word, an 1894 London police court report carried in newspapers of the time. It dealt  with a charge against one Charles Clarke of assaulting the police, stating that he was the king of a gang of youths known as the Hooligan Boys.

Nobody is sure exactly where the word originated from. As far as the particular street gang is concerned the best guess is that they took their name from a popular song The Hooligans, performed to great success at the Theatre Royal Hull at the end of 1891 by the Irish comedians Jim O’Connor and Charles Brady as two roistering boys named Bill Jinks and Bob Buster:

The song goes:

Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
    Always on the riot,
    Cannot keep them quiet,
Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
    They are the boys,
    To make a noise,
    In our backyard.

Who the original Hooligan or Hooligans were, is not clear. One theory holds that it came from an old Irish surname. In his 1899 book Hooligan Nights Clarance Rook wrote about a Patrick Hooligan, a bouncer and small-time thief with a small gang of followers. Patrick was charged and found guilty of murdering a policeman.

Evidence of the existence of the family name Hooligan also comes from Australia, where in 1888 the Sydney Morning Herald noted the song Miss Hooligan’s Christmas Cake, also widely performed in the UK a few years later. This song might have been related to the song A Slice of Mike Hooligan’s Cake, which was reported on in London in early 1885.

There is also a theory that the song The Hooligans might have derived from the Anglo-Irish slang word ‘hoole’ or ‘hoolie’, indicating a wild party.

Be that as it may, fact is that ‘hooligan’ and ‘hooliganism’ were popularised by the press as general terms or catchwords for any group or individuals involved in abusive or violent behaviour.

It even transcended language barriers and today in the criminal code of Russia one find the word ‘khuligan’ and its compounds to describe a criminal offence similar to what we know as ‘disorderly conduct’.

Final word to Blatter

President of the international governing body of Soccer (Fifa), Sepp Blatter, accused “the media” of a form of racism, saying in the wake of what had happened during the Ghana/Equatorial Guinea-game: “I don't see the negative side of African football that the media presents.”

If Blatter is correct, it would not be the first time that the issue of hooliganism gets racially tinted. Just consider the following passage from an 1894 report in The Hampshire Chronicle describing the Hooligans as a “race of Southwark Hottentots (our emphasis) with a mission to make the lives of respectable people unbearable”.

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