15 July ~ The police operation to stop hooligans travelling to South Africa was launched with a blaze of publicity. Now the World Cup has ended the Football Supporters' Federation's Michael Brunskill explains the problems with the campaign and what it meant for the average supporter
Most reports in June followed exactly the same lines. Something like: "Police crackdown on hooligans travelling to South Africa for World Cup." If it's a tabloid they probably also threw in a few choice words that no one uses in real life, like "amok" and "yobs". Our journalist then explains how the fans were taken to court and prevented from travelling. If it was a TV station or newspaper that can afford to send a reporter to an airport, the feature would finish with a quote. "I think it's fine, if you've got nothing to hide you've got nothing to fear. No one wants hooligans at the World Cup," says Terry Supporter of Anywhere, England.
This is totally compliant reporting – regurgitating a spoon-fed story from a police press officer. But, as the numbers show, things aren't as simple as they appear. Of the 3,000 plus fans that have banning orders in England and Wales, only five have received them for violence or disorder while following England. Read the reports and you'd be forgiven for thinking it was hundreds, if not thousands. Yet the overwhelming majority of those with banning orders have absolutely no intention of travelling to South Africa – the idea that hundreds of thugs might be caught at the border is a tabloid myth.
According to the last lot of Home Office figures (link to a PDF download) not one fan of England or Wales breached their order by following either nation away from home in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Yet the BBC, Sky, Metro and ITN (to name but a few) saw fit devote a huge amount attention to this story. Why? Though all the reports make allusions to arrests none of these were fans with current banning orders. The arrests fall into two categories – those stopped on "intelligence" and those who failed to hand in passports. There would be no problem if the police are detaining people who have been convicted of violent offences and given banning orders by a court of law. But that's not the case. We know of one fan who was pulled out of line and hauled to court only for the judge to throw the case out and award £1,000 compensation to pay for a new flight. Yet the Football Disorder Act 2000 allows police to forcibly detain supporters at the airport, all on one officer's say-so.
There was also lot of press about those with banning orders not handing passports in. But the assumption that someone with a banning order who fails to surrender their passport is a hooligan looking to travel doesn't ring true either. Dr Geoff Pearson's research at the University of Liverpool shows when such fans don't hand in passports it's usually because they don't have one. So they're hardly candidates for a trip half-way around the world.
Plenty will argue that the end justifies the means but these stories play on the stereotype of a football fan from ten years ago. English fans have been extremely well-behaved in recent tournaments and instead of warning England supporters not to travel foreign authorities now actively welcome them, and work with the Nationwide FSF Fans' Embassy to make sure everyone has the best time possible.
These reports create assumptions about a continuing major hooligan problem which then translates into needlessly excessive policing and stewarding of football fans, both at home and abroad. In the end, the police get more resources, the media get an easy story and the public's thirst for scare stories is quenched. Everyone's a winner, except the football fan of course. But then again we're hooligans, we get what we deserve. Did you not see the news?
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