The Soccer Tribe

Giles Metcalfe makes his GNG columnist debut with a look at The Soccer Tribe

There has been a plethora of books about football, but one book stands out in the limited academic (football) field of the psychological, sociological and anthropological study of the game of football and the humble fan – Desmond Morris’ The Soccer Tribe (Jonathan Cape, 1981).

soccer tribe

Now out of print, I was lucky enough to pick up a hardback copy for a couple of quid from the Oxfam book shop in Nottingham about 10 years ago. Although a very dated read these days, written long before Hillsborough and Euro 96 with the resultant advent of family-friendly stadiums and gentrification of the sport, it really is an interesting book, both interms of the written content and the excellent images of football days gone by inside it.

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Sammy Nelson of Arsenal commits a ‘Tribal Taboo’

The premise was to examine the game of football as a sociological force, and analyse and explain the crowd’s devotion, mania and hooliganism that accompanied games in the late 70s. As the introduction to the book says on the inside cover:

“(Morris) writes about the players and managers, the directors and the officials, the supporters and the fans and the game itself as if he were an explorer visiting a fascinating native tribe for the first time. The analogy is valid – football has rituals and ceremonies, superstitions and beliefs just as remarkable as those of any remote, exotic culture on a faraway island.”

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Suedehead in the snow (note scarf worn around the neck)

Desmond Morris was uniquely qualified to write about football fans, their mentality and behaviour. Born in 1928, in Wiltshire, Desmond Morris got a degree in zoology from Birmingham University and a doctorate from Oxford. He became curator of mammals at the London Zoo in 1959, a post he held for eight years. Most famous for writing The Naked Ape in 1967, a study of humans from a zoologist’s point of view, Morris became a director of Oxford United Football Club in 1977. His academic knowledge and position in the director’s box gave him a unique perspective on the crowd behaviour he saw at the Manor Ground  – or the ‘Tribal Followers’ as the book calls them.

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The semiotics of scarf wearing and “hardness”

But, in case you think this is some dry, dusty academic tome that only sociology or anthropology professors should read, the book is also a comprehensive written word and pictorial document of football in that era, with often humorous, sometimes gritty but always compelling photographs (some 580 in total, 500 of them in colour), and graphic images, charts and diagrams that still look contemporary today.

Choice excerpts from the book include ‘Tribal Taboos’ – fouls, infringements, mistakes and misconduct, detailing outrageous shirt and short pulling, leg-breaking tackles, studs-up kung fu kicks, and a great picture of Kevin Keegan getting in the referee’s face; the social life of the players, including their sex lives, whether they smoke or not, gamble, and keep racehorses or racing pigeons – a bit like an X-rated ‘Focus On’ from Shoot! magazine; the semiotics of modes of dress and scarf positioning, denoting the “hardness” of fans – hard and loyal, hard and disloyal, soft and loyal, and soft and disloyal, plus ‘Straights’ and ‘Toughs’, were wearing a denim jacket = hard, wearing a denim jacket and scarf tied round the wrist = loyalty and hardness, whilst wearing white voluminous Oxford bags = a “right hooligan” (this was the 70s after all); and an in-depth breakdown of Oxford United fans’ choice chants, including the requisite number of hand claps and which tunes of the day the chants were sung to (many still endure across the country to this day).

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The European casual look so beloved of Liverpool fans

There’s much to recommend in this weighty, 320-page hardback book, and if you see a copy in a charity shop or online then you should definitely buy it.

And finally, Cyril, in case you were wondering, Desmond Morris isn’t Esther Rantzen’s husband as is widely believed – her husband was the late Desmond Wilcox.

Another book you really should have by now is ‘Got, Not Got’ – buy it from branches of WH Smith and Waterstones or online here

About thefoxfanzine

Editor of The FOX Fanzine - covering Leicester City for 23 years... it seems longer.
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2 Responses to The Soccer Tribe

  1. Reblogged this on No Standing and commented:
    The semiotics of scarf wearing…

  2. Raymond McDonald says:

    Like the author, I picked up a copy of this in a charity shop a few years ago, for only a pound it is arguably the best football related book I’ve bought, apart from the GNG titles

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