Why is the time-honored picture of the civilized English gentleman being savaged by gangs of drunken soccer-fan "hooligans" who think a brawl is the best part of a trip to the stadium?

Sociologists struggling to answer that question point to deprivation brought about by the divisions between rich and poor that have grown more pronounced during the Thatcher administration.

Others, including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, have blamed the permissiveness of the 1960s, the welfare society and lowering of family standards.

But the hooligans range from the employed to the unemployed, the educated to the illiterate, the shaved heads to the respectably coiffed and appear to have only one thing in common - their belligerent pursuit of the explosive mix of mass quantities of alcohol and trouble.

"If you keep one of these hooligans in prison overnight, that will not deter him," said Sports Minister Colin Moynihan. "In fact, in the eyes of the hooligan element that is a bonus point."

This week, riots involving English fans at the European soccer championships in West Germany again disgraced the national team of the country once know for its "fair play" tradition.

Authorities said British fans clashed with other fans and police and destroyed property. Others staggered through streets giving Nazi salutes and dressed only in Union Jack underwear.

For three years England has been an outcast on the European soccer club scene because of a 1985 soccer riot in Belgium where 39 fans, mostly Italians, died in an incident blamed on English thugs supporting the Liverpool team. And because of this week's brawls in West Germany, the hopes English clubs had of returning to other continental competitions lie in ruins.

Thatcher, who has grappled for 10 years with the sports hooliganism problem, which dates back to the 1960s, calls it "a disgrace to civilized society" and sees a threat to the existence of soccer in Britain as a spectator sport.

The official frustration is all the greater because otherwise Britain's prestige is booming. It has strongest economic growth in Europe and one of the world's most respected government leaders.

Both the government and the soccer clubs have adopted a growing list of measures and laws and police pack stadiums, but the violence has persisted.

The gangs are like clubs that form among supporters of the same team. They try to start fights with supporters of opposing teams either inside stadiums or in the streets outside. Some use clubs, broken bottles or other weapons, but "fists and boots" are preferred.

For years when joblessness was above 10 percent, an accepted theory was that the toughs were unemployed young men, victims of a new hi-tech society venting their frustrations. But since 1986 unemployment has been falling steadily.

And studies found that members of some clubs are not even necessarily working class. One was the manager of a bank branch. All of them seem to just want to fight.

A Thatcher aide claimed, "The only problem with most of these guys is probably too much money, too much booze and too much mobility."