Thirty years later, Bill Buford’s investigative and immersive look at tribalism, nationalism, and racism in European football is more relevant than ever. Among the Thugs delivers a series of shockingly familiar images of football from the late ‘80s. Currently, with global football at its most accessible, widely followed, and publicly broadcasted, one would expect the primal tendencies of football to have evolved as well. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Tuesday, when Cagliari supporters heaved bottles and chanted gorilla noises at Juventus striker Moise Kean, the disappointing reality of European football was revealed – again. Kean, the 19-year old Italian of Ivorian descent, the future of Italian football, and the starlet of Juventus’ next generation, became the bullseye for many Cagliari fans. To them, his race preceded his talents as the reasons for their own club’s defeat to Juventus. What makes this incident so jarring is that Kean is by no means the first footballer to encounter such forces this season. Kean’s case, however, remains significant in that the racism that has reared its head yet again throughout European football has sunk its teeth into Italy.
Recently a section of the Inter Milan supporters chanted animal noises at Napoli’s Senegalese star-defender Kalidou Koulibaly. These chants, along with pictures of the player being passed out for Milan fans to hold in his face, resulted in Koulibaly lashing out on the field and earning a red card. Though Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti requested the match be called off three times during the course of play, the game continued without immediate intervention. In the days following the match, the Italian officials forced Inter to play their following two home games without fans and a third with only a portion of supporters in attendance.
Over the International break, English players Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, and Callum Hudson-Odoi faced racist shouts and jeers throughout their win against Montenegro. Raheem Sterling, of course, is familiar to such outbursts, having suffered such forces earlier in the season while playing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The country of Montenegro made a partial apology to the English players.
Such fans may be a minority in Europe and even in Italy, but their actions reflect a dark shadow at the core of the game’s history. Moreover, when Moise Kean – a player whose talent should be celebrated and cherished by every fan of the Italian National team – becomes the target of such hatred, the severity of the issue is revealed.
The Cagliari president Tommasso Giuliani attempted to excuse his fans wrong actions as best he could. His tactic – place blame on the player himself. He stated that every Juventus player would have gotten similar treatment: “If [Federico] Bernardeschi had celebrated like that, he would’ve been treated exactly the same way by our fans. If [Paulo] Dybala had the same drama queen antics after the goal that Matuidi did, he would’ve been treated exactly the same way.” Giuliani seems to have trouble realizing that the problem is not that Matuidi or Kean received the abuse but rather that the racist abuse is itself the issue.
Equally infuriating has been the response from team management, Italian media, and even Kean’s very own teammate Leonardo Bonucci. Bonnucci argued that Kean deserves half of the blame for inciting the fans to act in such a manner: “Kean knows that when he scores a goal, he has to focus on celebrating with his teammates. He knows he could’ve done something differently too.” Bonnucci continued, “There were racist jeers after the goal, Blaise heard it and was angered. I think the blame is 50-50, because Moise shouldn’t have done that and the Curva should not have reacted that way. We are professionals, we have to set the example and not provoke anyone.”
Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri mentioned Kean as a provocateur as well, stating that Kean’s actions were unnecessary. He did, however, indicate that just because Kean celebrated how he did, “that does not mean the idiots in the crowd and the way they reacted should be justified.” Allegri also called for a lifetime ban for any fan caught making such insults to any players.
So, why is Among the Thugs so critical to the current football climate? Simply put, the book traces the historical context of football’s intense and tribal atmosphere that appears in zealous factions within the supporters of a club. As is necessary with all historical critiques, Bill Buford presents the evidence for both sides of such fervor. Not only does he offer the negative effects of fascism and racism that appear throughout such groups, but he also reveals the positive nature of forming a community around football. For many of the fans he encounters, football has become an area outside of work or their houses where they can burn off steam, loosen up, and have a good time. To be clear, for most fans, this means time spent at the pub before the match followed by an afternoon or night of festive singing and cheering for the team. For that select minority, however, the motives transcend football. For that select minority, football is not merely an outlet for recreation but rather an excuse to exercise the regressive and offensive elements of their ideologies. This select minority, Buford reveals, presents the most significant dilemma facing football. Today, just as it should have in 1990, football must use every outbreak of such vile actions as a springboard for a direct and severe response. Whether banning fans, deducting points, or suspending a club altogether, serious action must be taken. Such action would remind supporters that, even if they have such twisted beliefs, they are not acceptable at a football ground. Just because a football match takes place at a stadium of thousands of supporters, the location is, at its core, no different from a household, a place of work, or even a church. Decency is a constant requirement throughout life. Football is no exception