Last year I had the agreeable and unusual experience of spending two hours in a packed sports stadium where there was no hooliganism, no violence, and no bad feeling. The good-humored crowd of thousands of men, women, and children, mainly local but with a fair sprinkling of foreigners assembled, enjoyed themselves and dispersed in a peaceful and orderly way. There were no concealed weapons, no blood on the terraces, no need to cage in unruly fans. Needless to say, I was not at a British soccer match, but at a Spanish bullfight. It was one more occasion for me to feel ashamed about the behavior of British crowds when provoked by England’s national sport.

The British are a people of no less memorable honor than their Spanish cousins, so why is it that their behavior at play is so contemptibly worse? Why are the British such bad sports? The answer lies more in the nature of the games than of the people. Soccer, or football as it is called in England, is by its very nature divisive and apt to cause conflict. There arc always two sides and sets of mutually hostile supporters whose feelings are bound to erupt in those menacing taunts and blows that are largely excluded from the card-and-whistle-tamed game below. The hooligans have rightly realized that the real conflict has to take place not on the pitch, but on the terraces.

Where football divides the bullfight unites. Apart from a few taurophile perverts, the whole of the crowd at a bullfight is united as one species in admiration of and fear for the matador. The matador represents the triumph of the human brain and manual dexterity over the crude brute force of crude brutes. He is Homo sapiens armed by Homo faber. How very different from the muddied oafs at the goal whose crude blundering reminds us rather of the hapless bull careering after the flicking red flag of the matador like a witless Marxist.

Everyone in the crowd knows that each time a matador faces a bull, he is risking not the scuffed shins and the coarsened cartilages of the football heavies, but his very life. It is for this reason that women are not allowed to be matadors whereas they make excellent soccer players. There can be no doubt that a strong and intelligent ballerina could kill a bull, but that is not the point. That the matadors are well aware of the risks they run is demonstrated by the statue of Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, that they have erected outside the bullring in Madrid. Fleming’s discovery has saved the lives of far more gored matadors than bored goalkeepers. That death is faced by the matador and that the bull is sacrificed in public rather than in an anonymous abattoir gives a vertical and implicitly religious quality to bullfighting that is totally lacking in football. On display is the Adam who must die but who has total dominion over the animal world, the Isaac in whose escape from sacrifice we all rejoice. It is thus appropriate that each bullfight is governed by a tight and unchanging ritual that uses music, color, and tradition to produce a seemly orderliness. It is utterly different from the vulgar and grubby farce of an English soccer match, which is a positive incentive to the hooligan to misbehave, for nothing serious is at stake.

For a brief time in the history of football, notably in the years immediately following the Second World War, English soccer supporters behaved themselves with uncharacteristic decorum. At this time, however, most spectators were not true football aficionados. Respectable older men with families went to watch their local team on Saturday afternoon because there was nothing else to do. As soon as growing affluence enabled the mass of the British people to buy motor cars, television sets, and videos, they quit going to soccer matches, which then were left to football’s true supporters—a lumpen riff-raff of adolescents and alcoholics.

It would be good if the British could reverse this process, but the opposite is likely to happen. Football is already a much bigger commercial enterprise in Spain than is the bullfight. As so often in the modern world, a characterless international sport designed to appeal to the very lowest elements in society is slowly supplanting one that vividly embodies a particular national tradition. Also, British animal-rights activists have begun their campaign against bullfighting, thus confirming the Spanish view that Britain’s lower classes are thugs and its middle classes busybodies. The animal-rights lobby’s next move will be to mobilize that prejudice against all things Spanish that gripped Britain from the time of the Armada to the death of the Caudillo. In the end they will win, first in Britain and France, then in the EC, and finally in Spain itself, not because they are in the right, but because single-issue fanatics can always wear down even the most powerful opposition simply by being an intolerable nuisance. When they succeed, Spain—like Britain—will fall to the hooligans.