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Hooligans: A Good Old English Tradition

Is British hooliganism part of British culture just as tea and cucumber sandwiches?

June 16, 2002

Is British hooliganism part of British culture just as tea and cucumber sandwiches?

Hooliganism is a problem worldwide. Violence during football matches has led to the death of many. Some clubs must contend with hard-core fans who also dabble in organized crime when they are not causing havoc in the stadium. In order to prevent ugly scenes during the 2002 World Cup, the Japanese and South Korean police have been training for months.

To their benefit, these two countries’ police forces are well-versed in martial arts. The Japanese police officers actually trained with updated versions of samurai weapons.

Their South Korean counterparts have previously been tested during the country’s many — and often — violent strikes. Still, football hooliganism is something new to both countries.

In order to support their Asian counterparts, the police in the United Kingdom took preliminary action. 1,000 football fans known to be hard-core hooligans had been asked to surrender their passports. To prevent them from traveling to either Japan or South Korea, they were barred from leaving the country altogether.

But sports related violence and police preparations aside, where does the term “hooligan” actually come from? Interestingly, it found its way into the English language at around 1898 after a certain Patrick Hooligan had killed a London policeman.

The case gained such notoriety that the London press soon coined the expression “hooliganism.” The fact that Mr. Hooligan was Irish only supported the idea of hooliganism as something rebellious.

Yet, while hooligans have caused much havoc, it should also be noted that not all of them are criminals. On the contrary, early 20th century hooliganism involved many of the finest and brightest of the upper echelons of British society. It can even be argued that hooliganism launched the career of one of Britain’s finest prime ministers, Winston Churchill.

Enter the British Conservative Party. In 1901, a group of young Conservatives — among them Winston Churchill, who had entered parliament that year — sought to change the party from within.

They were upset about their party’s policies and met once a week for dinner discussions for which they invited prominent Members of Parliament.

The leader of the dissident — or rebellious — Conservatives was Lord Cecil Hugh, son of former Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. And it was from his name that this group of young Conservative rebels was called “Hughligans.” From there, it did not take some quick witted contemporaries very long to apply the newly found phrase “hooligans” to the young rebellious “Hughligans.”

However, it was rather meant to be a term of endearment for this group of young idealistic politicians who sought to invigorate an old party with their enthusiasm about long-term politics for Great Britain.

One of the burning political problems was free trade, which the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom at the time wanted to abolish.

It was over this issue that Churchill, who favored free trade, eventually left the Conservatives to join the Liberals who were the opposition party.

During the subsequent elections, Churchill was credited with bringing about a landslide victory for the Liberals under Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

Of course, some 20 years later, he rejoined the Conservatives. Yet, it is important to remember that between 1904 and 1924 Winston Churchill established himself as an astute politician and gained experience which helped him to serve his country as its leader during World War II.

For all the reverence he enjoys now, at the time Churchill was vilified as unruly, unprincipled and rebellious — a hooligan in its purest form.

In view of the current hoopla concerning the English football fans, it might come as a surprise that they have such an illustrious pedigree. For the sake of the sport — and the health of the police officers and other fans — one can only hope that the present hooligans rediscover some of their predecessors’ finest virtues. For now that seems to be the case.