What will be the lasting effect of Euro '96 on the culture of England fans?

So, the parts of England where most of the domestic trophies go finally saw some competitive international football for the first time in thirty years. England played well in a couple of games and might even have won it. Most of the visiting supporters seemed to enjoy themselves and German fans celebrated in Trafalgar Square after the Final without there being a riot. Things went so well, in fact, that the FA have announced that it intends to mount a bid for the 2006 World Cup. 

Football might be coming ‘home’ again, if we can stand the excitement. But the home represented by Euro ’96 was a private housing estate patrolled by security guards on the lookout for riff raff. It would suit some people but not everyone would want to live there, even if they could afford to. Many of those empty seats at the club grounds around the country would have been filled if the ticketing policy hadn’t been so needlessly complex and badly managed, and more than anything else if the tickets hadn’t been so expensive.

The FA may have put it about that high prices were a way of deterring invasions of the stadia by fire breathing skinheads wrapped in Union Jacks, but expense is not an issue for people who’ve travelled all over the world in search of trouble.

That the outbreaks of mass violence, predicted before the tournament by the tabloids and programmes like Newsnight, didn’t happen was partly due to the police simply having had sufficient time and resources to prevent it, and partly due to the fact the media was simply too busy selling the story of England’s revival (and not just the team’s).

There was violence, as Scotland fans travelling on the London underground could testify, but only once did it get front pages headlines, in Trafalgar Square after the Germany game (when the police seemed to be seeking compensation for the absence of opportunities to mix it earlier in the tournament; people who had been in the Square celebrating and wished to get away from the trouble were prevented from doing so). Even then, the press, and unusually the police spokesmen, took care to distance it from the football, which in the tabloids’ case was also partly a way of steering blame away from themselves in the wake of the outrage generated by their xenophobic coverage.

Empty seats won’t have troubled the FA unduly. Most of the tickets had been pre-sold, Wembley was, naturally, packed out for every game, the TV viewing figures were huge, so the corporate sponsors will be happy, as too will UEFA, who are expected to make a profit in the region of £30 million.

But the FA should be worried, because for all their enthusiasm for trying to sell Euro ’96 to the new breed of fan, it is still the case that many football fans, the people who go every week during the League season, still don’t consider themselves to be England fans.

This matters because the problems that attend England matches overseas – the team played in Europe only twice during Terry Venables’ tenure and we know what happened on one of those two occasions – are unlikely to be blown away by a few weeks of Wembley crowds singing the Three Lions song.

It has long been said that the atmosphere surrounding the England team could be radically changed if only more people were prepared to travel to support them, people who wouldn’t spend their time before kick off massed together in city centre bars getting tanked up while the police construct their cordon outside. People who could outnumber, and thus defuse, both the neo-fascist fringe and the squaddies who do their fighting, the sullen lads in replica tops who don’t have much to say beyond a few snatched choruses of the national anthem or Rule Britannia.

The culture of pent-up hostility surrounding the England team might be in the process of changing, but it’s roots are sunk pretty deep, as the tabloids demonstrated during Euro ’96. Their descent into the depths of race prejudice clearly misjudged the national mood and it was heartening that they were so widely condemned for it, the only pity being that Mirror editor Piers Morgan didn’t lose his job as a consequence. But that stuff didn’t come out of the blue; papers don’t sell millions by trying to reflect the outlook of a tiny minority. The sensibility that the Mirror tapped into when they made a joke out of the Guernica bombing as part of their list of Ten Nasties Spain Has Given The World was on public display at Wembley during the tournament.

At the Germany game, for example, England fans who one minute would be swaying along with Skinner and Baddiel were in the next breath shouting over to the German fans asking them if they were from Dresden, the place where over 100,000 were killed by Allied bombing. These were people who’d spent a lot of money on their day out and were intent on enjoying it.

We shouldn’t be too surprised that our past deeds in war seem to pre-occupy the minds of people watching football matches when our football culture is riddled, infested even, with war references. First World War battles are marked by suitably solemn annual services but continue to be treated as routine reference points by football people – there can be no higher praise of a player than to say, as Alan Hansen did of Stuart Pearce during the tournament, that you’d want him beside you in a trench when you’re about to go over the top. Such comparisons make the game seem dangerous when for the most part it isn’t, certainly not in a way that justifies comparison with charging headlong into machine gun fire. Perhaps that’s the point: football needs all this overtly masculine talk because, at some subliminal level at least, footballers are uncomfortably aware that they are playing a kid’s game.

England games aren’t the only place where you’ll hear jokes and songs about violence and death, of course – ‘Munich 58’ and all its variants stem from the same impulse, a sort of warped machismo, let’s see if you’re shocked by this. But at Wembley this summer it was all the more disturbing for being mixed in with the celebratory stuff, alongside the facepaint and the St George flags.

Unlike the Dutch, Danes, and Scots who can all manage to support their team while at the same time not taking themselves too seriously, many England fans have yet to get beyond the stage of saying simply ‘We’re English, you’re not, fuck off’. They might be a declining breed, but they’re still present in numbers large enough to put off some who might otherwise contemplate standing amongst them at England games here or abroad.

It would, of course, be unrealistic to expect a permanent shift in the nature of the support for the national team in the space of three weeks. But change has got to come. The war might be over by 2006.

We’ll know real progress has been made when we see England fans dressed in silly costumes – there were a few St Georges around at Wembley, and you’d think some enterprising manufacturers, perhaps from among the 14,000 corporate guests present at the England v Scotland match, might be working on an idea or two. We’re not spoilt for choice, after all.

From WSC 114 August 1996. What was happening this month

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