THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Eighteen years after the last tournament in Germany was hit by hooliganism, the hope is that if it happens again it won’t involve the English. Mark Perryman reports

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Thomas is not a happy policeman. Recently appointed as the officer in overall charge of policing England fans, in March he held his first press briefing in this role. Thomas rattles off the statistics he had provided the media with: “Five English arrests at England’s last nine games, just one at a match involving England at Euro 2004.” But the reporters weren’t interested. Instead they ran stories focusing on the disorder in Marseille at France 98, Charleroi at Euro 2000, respectively of eight and six years’ vintage, to preface their speculation for more of the same in Germany. 

Those who engage in constructing this self-fulfilling prophecy, including many of England’s own support, have failed to notice the changes in tournament policing strategy since the aftermath of Euro 2000. Back then Home Office was awarded governmental responsibility for England fans abroad. Before this it was passed from department to department with no one wanting to end up shouldering any blame.

The 2000 Football Disorder Act brought in toughened-up banning orders and resulted in a serious investment of resources to secure and enforce the bans. Most important, though, has been a change of policing leadership. This was begun by David Swift, Thomas’s predecessor, and has been heavily influenced by the research of English academic Clifford Stott and his Dutch counterpart, Otto Adang. Thomas sums up the approach now: “First, prevent those who pose a threat from travelling to Germany. Second, maximise co-operation with the host authority and communities, influence their perceptions and expectations. Third, encourage supporter empowerment and recognise this as a vital part of any security strategy.”

Flick through WSC back copies following Euro 88, Italia 90 or Euro 92 and the magnitude of the change is instantly apparent. Fifteen years ago fan activists would reject the violence of some England supporters while condemning the almost wilful desire of government and police to mishandle the situation, often punish the innocent and allow the most fearsome of policing by foreign forces to continue unchecked. Stephen Thomas argues that the changes in how he and his officers now approach preventing the outbreak of disorder in Germany is a result of how football itself has changed. “Our supporters are no longer seen as the major threat, certainly not this summer. Attendance figures at home have risen, there is increasingly an expectation amongst fans of a certain standard of customer service. Football is watched in an entirely different environment compared to 15 years ago.”

Few fans travelling to Germany will be expecting anything less than decent accommodation, transport and proper regard to crowd safety. With Euro 2004 and the 2002 World Cup trouble-free and very few violent incidents during qualifying, too, England’s away support has not only increased but broadened, with more families, women and black and Asian fans expected to travel to Germany than ever before. A World Cup trip is something these fans are looking forward to enjoying in some comfort, not as a four-week endurance test of every possible privation.

“Since 1998 a common approach was emerging on how to police international football, influenced partly by the Champions League,” Thomas says. “This impacted particularly on the French, Dutch, German and English police.” Euro 2000 accelerated the process: “The government became increasingly involved, they weren’t prepared to have our international reputation ruined by a bunch of hooligans.” The result was a staged response to any disorder: “We begin with a friendly approach, police in uniform, no riot gear, small groups, mixing with the fans. If a threat emerges clear warnings are issued, we seek to isolate those involved without endangering those who are not. And only if that prevents escalation do the riot police get involved.” Time and again this is what fans witnessed in Portugal and, thanks to the first two stages, any resort to the third was encouragingly rare.

Thomas is full of praise for the role of the fans in this process and uses an increasingly familiar phrase to describe this: “self policing”. But what does he mean by this? “We are not encouraging vigilantes, but what is obvious is that, increasingly, large groups of supporters are becoming better behaved and they have the confidence to pressure the rest to do likewise.”

Stott has been researching the policing of England fans since Italia 90. His analysis, which prioritises the need for “friendly but firm” policing rather than more oppressive and intrusive policing methods, has become highly influential not only with British officers responsible for England’s supporters, but with continental forces, too. Stott defines self-policing as “the active intervention by fans to prevent other fans from engaging in violent behaviour”. At Euro 2004 he observed two particularly crucial instances of this. “Before the France game fans stepped in to prevent a crowd cascading towards confrontation: they were mediating and getting support from other fans. And on the day of the match against Croatia our supporters actually pressured the police to move on a crowd of Croatia fans who they knew were looking for trouble. Without that intervention a section of our support would have undoubtedly responded, violently.” He is convinced that such episodes are what will eventually mark a real break with England fans’ dismal past.

In the short term, however, the focus remains on the banning orders. Thomas describes these as “our major tool to prevent those intent on causing trouble travelling to Germany”. He also emphasises their impact on the host country: “It is reassuring for them to know that we have identified and kept at home thousands of known football hooligans.” And he is convinced of their effectiveness. “Fifteen years ago a prison sentence was like street credibility for these individuals, but banning orders, preventing them from going to a football match, really hurts.”

Inspector Andy Brame is responsible for the Football Banning Orders Authority’s operation at ports. “By June there will be around 3,500 orders, up from the current 3,282. All those who have a ban will receive a letter from us requiring that they surrender their passport to their local police station.” The system is remarkably effective, with 95 per cent compliance for Euro 2004. As a point of comparison, more than a third of ASBOs are defied by offenders, while Brame says that “only 106 of those banned have received another ban during this time” since Euro 2000.

The most radical departure will be the presence in Germany of around 80 British police officers in uniform. Superintendent Roger Evans will command this force. “It’s never been done before. But surely it’s common sense that having a familiar uniform in an unfamiliar place can help. It’s radical, but sensible.” While these officers won’t have powers of arrest and intervention, they should provide an authoritative point of liaison between fans and the German police.

Thomas remains both an optimist and a realist as to the outcome following all these preparations. “Euro 2004 was a huge success, it set a standard. But Germany is much more accessible, greater numbers will travel, not just from here but countries who have a significant domestic hooligan problem: Poland, Czech Republic, Serbia and others.” Add the enduring rivalry with Germany that too often mixes up matters martial of no relevance to the football and the conditions are clearly different. But as Stephen Thomas, Roger Evans and Andy Brame tour the country meeting England fan groups, there is an increasing shared mood of determination to not let things move backwards.

These are discussions that could not have taken place ten or 15 years ago – the depth of suspicion on both sides was too deep. Germany, remains, though the big test.

From WSC 231 May 2006. What was happening this month

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