File:Among the Thugs.jpgNothing generates the kind of excitement that accompanies the World Cup of soccer, now underway in South Africa. National rivalries are as intense as on any battlefield, and violence is an unwelcome though all too common byproduct. Just short of 20 years ago, 40 people died outside Johannesburg when fans surged toward a jammed exit to escape rival brawling fans at a hotly contested match.

Today in England, the government has said it fears a large rise in domestic related incidents during that country’s 2010 World Cup campaign, based on evidence from the last World Cup. British police put together a campaign to raise awareness, support the victims of domestic violence and wife beatings and ultimately stop violent attacks.

Research shows that during the last football World Cup in 2006 the number of cases dealing with domestic violence rose by around 25 percent during England matches and even soared to 30 percent on the day when England was eliminated from the World Cup.

The United States’ 1-1 draw against England on Saturday elated American World Cup watchers. (England was favored to win.) Across the pond, however, the flubbed goal that tied the game is being replayed over and over, and the fate of the unhappy English goalkeeper Robert Green debated endlessly. A player in primary school, so it is said, would not have fumbled that ball so disastrously.

Is Green’s status as a national scapegoat a done deal? Will the English coach find a different starting keeper for the next game? These pressing questions are consuming the energies of every Englishman, from the mayor of London to sportswriters and fans of all ages.

Closer to the home field, there is this report from Worldpress.org: “The worst part of the World Cup tournament is that there are already indirect confirmations from local people that xenophobia will kick in directly after the tournament. The local people (black people) made known that all foreigners, especially black foreigners, are to leave South Africa immediately after the tournament has ended. The violence will turn towards the white citizens and the black citizens who are not able to defend themselves and their families.”

Put yourself in the mindset that produces this depth of passion (without actually sustaining the psychic and sometimes physical bruises that are part of the game) with Among the Thugs, Bill Buford’s brilliant opus of reportage on London’s soccer hooligans. It is “A Clockwork Orange come to life,” declared the late John  Gregory Dunne when the book was published in 1990.

They have names like Barmy Bernie, Daft Donald, and Steamin’ Sammy. They like lager (in huge quantities), the Queen, football clubs (especially Manchester United), and themselves. Their dislike encompasses the rest of the known universe, and England’s soccer thugs express it in ways that range from mere vandalism to riots that terrorize entire cities. Here, Buford, editor of the journal Granta, enters this alternate society and records both its savageries and its sinister allure with the social imagination of a George Orwell and the raw personal engagement of a Hunter Thompson.

And those horrors are spurred by inter-city rivalries, not international as are those in the World Cup. Lest you believe there is something “modern” about this violence, maybe spawned by the collapsing economy or the threat of nuclear destruction, consider this observation from Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, in 1908:

“One wonders if this can be the same nation that gained for itself the reputation of being a stolid, pipe-sucking manhood, unmoved by panic or excitement, and reliable in the tightest of places. Get the lads away from this—and teach them to be manly.”

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