The best sports books are about far more than whatever game is the focus and can appeal to readers with absolutely no interest in athletics as much as they appeal to hardcore fans and historians.
The Boys of Summer is ostensibly about the Brooklyn Dodgers of the mid-1950s, but it's really about community, fame and aging. Friday Night Lights is purportedly about high school football, but it's really about class and small-town America. Levels of the Game is professedly about one Arthur Ashe tennis match, but it's really about race, politics and the divisions in the country in the late 1960s.
Bill Buford's Among the Thugs is, at face value, about one American becoming a fan of English Premiere League soccer ("football" across the pond, of course) in the 1980s. But it's really about racism, class warfare and group psychosis in the name of rooting for your favorite club, and the 313 pages of the paperback version I recently read alternate between mesmerizing and horrifying.
All of it is incredibly enlightening in terms of the dangers of a riled-up, dangerous crowd — a point that became more emphatically clear with the events at the U.S. Capitol a full 30 years after the riot Buford experienced at the 1990 World Cup. That event was the culmination of a decade in which violence regularly marred the English Premiere League as well as international matches played by England's national team. Clashes between different teams' fans, and between British fans and their international rivals, led to a lot of death, destruction, even an effort to ban England from international play for a spell.
Buford was in the midst of that mayhem throughout, researching organizations and fans, attending games, even joining some of the most fanatic instigators as they planned their tactics for avoiding police, inflicting damage on their foes' supporters and still making it inside the stadium for kickoff. The only thing more shocking than scenes of children being kicked by drunk hooligans or the regular stabbings as part of the fans' hand-to-hand combat might be Buford's willingness to put himself in the middle of situations any sane person would avoid. Case in point: spending an evening at a party and initiation ritual of violent British white supremacy group the National Front.
What makes Buford's work more than a read about violence is the humor he infuses throughout, often in describing his own naivete about the events he was getting involved in, or in describing characters like Mick, a Manchester United fan with no noticeable employment, but a voracious appetite: "In addition to a newspaper full of fish 'n' chips, his two cheeseburgers, his two meat pies, his four bags of bacon-flavored crisps, and the Indian takeout order he was about to purchase on his way to the station." He washed all that down with the better part of a bottle of vodka and 18 pints of beer. Plus a few cans in his pockets for later.
Meeting the occasional charming lout, though, does nothing to blunt the horrors to come as Buford explores the sociology and psychology of the violent crews who marauded through the streets of various European cities while Buford was working on Among the Thugs. This is where the comparisons come in to modern American groups like the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys and various other MAGA supporters on hand in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and at other violent clashes and Trump rallies the past few years.
The football fanatics Buford writes about are just a small percentage of the teams' fans, but they have an oversized influence on the culture of the game, and in the media's coverage of the sport. And they share some characteristics no matter which club Buford is hanging out with; they're invariably white, often overtly racist, generally considered "working class."
As individuals, they can come off as attractive rascals, scamming the airlines for free flights to away matches, drinking too much and coming up with creative ways to ditch work on game days. When those individuals come together, though, things almost invariably take an ugly turn. There are racist chants at Black players and physical attacks on police and innocent bystanders. They have a sense of belonging and community thanks to the group, sure, but the group in turn encourages a mob mentality that results in horrific violence against anyone the group considers the "other side."
Buford's analysis of the dynamics of a crowd is what makes Among the Thugs transcend simply being another sports book. How those crowds form and gain power, and make individuals act in ways unimaginable when you meet them over a beer or fish 'n' chips, makes for an excellent read. And a timely one, too. ♦