On the night when several thousand lusty Bulls fans celebrated their second straight NBA championship by smashing windows, overturning cars, looting stores, and setting fires around town–just as fans had the year before–one of the rioters promised a reporter from the Tribune they’d be back. “Next year this time,” he said, “we’ll be doing it again. It’s a Chicago tradition from now on.”

An empty boast? Maybe, but ritual sports mayhem is catching on here. In England it has been the custom for decades: every Saturday the lads get blind drunk on their way to the football (soccer) match, wreck pubs and trains, steal whatever they can, pick fights with opposing fans, assault bystanders and dark-skinned immigrants, and sometimes kill. No one is ever surprised. On the contrary, as Bill Buford tells us in his tour through this infernal subculture, Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence, the English can’t believe this sort of thing doesn’t happen everywhere. When he assured a local police superintendent that there is almost never any crowd trouble at games in America, where everyone has a seat, events often go on for three hours without incident, and very few police are ever needed, the constable was literally struck dumb. If the Bulls keep winning (or maybe if they start to lose–who can say?), Buford might have to revise his rosy view of the sporting Americano. But even specimens like those who were dancing on taxis parked on Rush Street last June are mere slime next to the highly evolved hooligans Buford describes.

Here’s a day in the life of an English football thug. You’ve worked all week at your blue-collar job, and on Saturday morning you set out early to meet your mates in the pub. Your crew, by sheer force of numbers, owns the place. By late morning you’re all blotto, and after breaking up a bit of furniture and peeing on the pool tables you storm out without paying for the last several rounds. At the subway station you join other groups and crash the turnstiles en masse, packing the train with hundreds of cursing, sweating, and quite possibly heaving supporters of the home team. The conductor is too frightened to move, so you start to chant and rock the cars until he finally pulls out, shooting at top speed straight to the stadium: anyone else unlucky enough to be on the train–you refer to these people, as you do all nonsupporters, as “fuckin’ cunts”–had better keep his head down.

When you arrive you are met by a cordon of bobbies with nightsticks, mounted police, and dog handlers who conduct you to the gate, keeping you away from the families and out of range of the other team’s supporters. (The clubs themselves often have evil-sounding names like Millwall, Tottenham Hotspurs, and Arsenal; their stadiums are found in places like Cold Blow Lane.) You may have a ticket or you may not, but either way the police will put you inside: their job is to contain the violence. So after being frisked, in you go, herded into the “terraces”–the cheap section, something like our bleachers except that there are no seats, just sloping concrete steps surrounded by wire. The most notorious terraces have nicknames–the Chelsea Shed, the Millwall Den–but all are known generically as the “cage” or “pen”: it’s where you put the animals. You’re packed so tight in there that you lose control over how your body moves. When the crowd surges, you surge with it; its emotions become yours. When someone above you tosses down unopened cans of beer or spark plugs or pisses onto your head, there’s nothing you can do. You couldn’t leave if you wanted to.

After the match you sneak through the police lines and look for your mates, who’ve all done the same. Now the real fun starts. You cruise briskly around the stadium picking up momentum and bodies as you go. The crowd is taking shape. One of the more seasoned thugs, your “general,” steps to the front; around him are a half dozen “lieutenants,” spotty-faced teens who act as lookouts and pass on his instructions. The tension builds. Suddenly you see what you’ve been waiting for, a band of enemy fans. Are they chasing you, or are you chasing them? “It’s going to go off,” you hear, and you pass it on: “It’s going to go off.” Everyone’s excited. The general maneuvers you into position, a chant rises up, a roar follows, and then the explosion comes. You feel release. You watch out for knives and find a straggler, one of the younger ones, and with four or five of your brothers you kick him bloody and senseless. The police arrive to break up the melee, but you can’t stop. The crowd’s enthusiasms, and its furies, are now yours. You sprint down the street with the mob, stopping traffic, flattening anyone in your way with a forearm or a stick (“fuckin’ cunt!”), smashing windshields and storefronts–the very sound of glass shattering is intoxicating–until, all spent, you swarm into another pub to guzzle more beer, lick your wounds, and think about next week. It’s been a great day.

Buford spent eight years roving with hooligans in England and on the continent. He’s at his best describing those brief, ecstatic moments when the crowd becomes real, when the fear felt by each person is transformed by some collective alchemy into a wave of reckless passion that no one, not even an expatriate American journalist like Buford doing “research,” as he calls it, can resist. “I am enjoying this,” he writes in a typical passage. “I am excited by it. Something is going to happen.” This is what makes his narrative so compelling. He has been part of the crowd as it forms; he has felt its tension build; he knows its craving for release.

From the outside, crowd violence looks like an explosion of frustration, powerlessness, or nationalist fervor; but to Buford, who has seen it from the inside, political and economic motives are just “cosmetic or rhetorical.” “We’ve all got it in us,” one of the lads tells him. “It just needs a cause.” Most of them, in fact, have jobs and plenty of money, and their loyalties, though potent, shift easily. They might go to Turin for two days and brutalize scores of “Eyeties” while chanting for England, and then a week later bash English fans at home in the name of Manchester United. People want to belong, of course, to feel exalted by surrendering themselves to something greater, but that applies as much to the faithful and to ardent but law-abiding sports fans as to hooligans. There has to be something more to account for the violence. And on this point Buford seems unsure. He writes that “they do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hallucinogenic drugs, or behaved badly or rebelliously. Violence is their antisocial kick.” But this kind of home-brewed sociology smells bad even to Buford, and he quickly forgets the idea that the mayhem is just another generation’s rock and roll. The problem is that he has no other theory to put in its place.

In effect Buford throws up his hands at why they do it. There are some clues, nevertheless, in his own account of running with the herd. A crucial one is its intense fixation on the present: as the crowd carries you closer and closer toward the line of lawlessness it banishes past and future from your mind, forcing your senses to focus on each fierce pinpoint of time just as you pass through it. That’s the high. The well-known sensation during a car wreck is similar, although that takes you completely out of control: however exciting it may be, you can’t really enjoy cracking up on the highway. But in a crowd about to erupt into frenzy the tension between control and abandon is exquisite; it stretches out the aesthetic dimension so you can savor your fear, your rage, and even, if Buford can be believed, your pain. That’s why they come back week after week, hooked on violence: hooliganism itself is a kind of “sport,” like downhill skiing or bungee jumping, that locks you into the immediacy of your body in the present moment. A better analogy would be the oldest sport of all–sex.

Sex has a funny role in this book: it’s nowhere yet everywhere at the same time. Buford never mentions sex directly–football thuggery is such a man’s world, after all–but it is implied in almost everything he writes, from his own subtitle to the way the lads describe the thrills of crowd violence. They talk about “a chemical thing,” a “hormonal spray,” and “having to have it”; after a riot they exult, “We did it, we took the city”; and their most important phrase, repeated like a mantra during the moments of greatest tension just before violence explodes, is “It’s going to go off.” (“Go off” is British slang for reaching orgasm, a fact the author, for reasons of his own, fails to mention.) There’s an unmistakable coyness in the way Buford describes the stages of the crowd’s growing excitement and how they affect him: the first teasing encounters with other fans and police before the rabble takes shape as a crowd; the building tension as the herd mentality emerges; the exhilaration and sense of inevitability when everyone realizes it’s going to “go off”; the “heat of the feeling” when it finally does, bringing with it “pure elemental pleasure” and “joy at the very least, but more like ecstasy.” When it’s over he actually asks himself “What was it like for me?” and answers, sensitively: “An experience of absolute completeness.”

Rioters may be few–a small minority, as we are always told–but they are indeed a happy few.

How does a book like this come to be written? How does a journalist (Buford is editor of Granta, one of the top literary magazines in England) join a mob week after week with the knowledge, even the hope, that it may turn violent? About this, at least, Buford is straightforward: “I wasn’t interested in questions of right and wrong, and I didn’t ask them. I wanted to get close to the violence–very close.” One example of his exemplary objectivity is enough. When a half dozen of his mates set upon an Italian boy and start kicking him without mercy, Buford concentrates intently on the sounds yielded by different parts of the body as they get stomped (the face, for instance, sounds “gritty”) rather than on the victim’s fate: “It wouldn’t have taken much to have saved the boy,” he writes, “but I didn’t. I don’t think the thought occurred to me.”

Even more distasteful is the moral ambiguity in the way Buford treats his sources. With some effort he gained the trust of these people, who then took him into their lives and accepted him as a “good geezer” so he could write his book. He repays them with page after page of contemptuous mockery of their bad taste in food and clothing, their dubious personal hygiene, their bad teeth, their tattoos, and especially their fat, ugly bodies. (Buford seems to be obsessed with flab.) He even takes time to ridicule their simpleminded delight in shooting rolls of film when traveling. They repel him, in other words, because they are lower-class. Buford grew up in a Los Angeles suburb but has obviously learned all the right distinctions during his sojourn in England: he is now a consummate snob. Many writers, of course, have brought back reports from the underworld, but great ones like Pierce Egan, Nelson Algren, and A.J. Liebling were at least honest with those who lived there, whom they always respected and sometimes loved. Buford, despite his pretenses, is not in that league. He’s only slumming.

This is not to say he lacks a liberal conscience. On the contrary, he’s overburdened by it. He looks back wistfully to a time when suburbs, unemployment, and consumer electronics had not yet sucked the manliness out of the working class, when it could still cultivate and pass on its homely virtues in front of the glowing grate at night. Now, he sadly reports, the lads have nothing left but their style, which becomes all the more extreme when there is no substance behind it. And though he suffers few moral qualms, he is afflicted by doubts about consorting with criminals. The phrase “What am I doing here?,” or something like it, occurs at least a half dozen times in the book; unfortunately, he never gives a satisfactory answer. Eventually Buford’s conscience does get the better of him and he quits the football circuit–“I was ready to stop looking,” he says, “I had reached some kind of limit”–a conversion that just happened to coincide with the worst football disaster of all time, when 95 people were crushed to death in the pens at Hillsborough.

The next year, however, England was matched against Holland in the World Cup and Buford made a last-minute decision to go. Dutch fans are as notorious as the English, and he had a feeling that “something was going to happen, and I didn’t want to miss it.” The story of what did happen in Sardinia makes up the last and best chapter in the book. His account of how a purposeful crowd comes together out of a disparate rabble–there were no organized “firms,” or gangs, in this case–is riveting: we see how it draws in its troops, provides them with officers (“a crowd creates the leaders who create the crowd”), tests its boundaries until the time is right, and then smashes them in a frenzy.

But for the patient reader, who has turned 300 pages waiting for it to happen, the best part comes when the author himself is bludgeoned enthusiastically by three members of an Italian riot squad. His description of the beating makes it sound like what Rodney King got, but in fact he’s up right afterward, running in circles trying to shake out the pain. And cursing, too. He unleashes an unseemly barrage of hate against his fellow rioters: now they are “incomprehensibly stupid,” “filthy,” “little shits,” from “a country of little shits,” full of “miserable nationalism,” and products of a “social mutation.” He can’t understand why the Italians took him for a thug–in the final frantic seconds before his comeuppance, he even considers digging out some tattered press cards to thrust in their faces–until a revelation hits him with Newtonian force: “I thought about my clothes: a cotton shirt, shorts, dirty trainers. I looked like one of them.” Looked like one of them? Apparently it never occurred to Buford–even after eight years of drinking and running with hooligans he despised as slobs so he could write a book about them, while getting at least as much of a psychosexual charge from watching their violent and brutal acts as they did actually performing them–that he was one of them and deserved, as much as anyone ever did, a good thumping.

Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence by Bill Buford, W.W. Norton & Co., $22.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.