In the absence of hooligans in the stands, the press analysis of the Turkey-England game focused on violence invloving the players. Barney Ronay examines the evidence

FIST-ANBUL... We’re through despite shocking Turk violence... EVERY KICK, EVERY BRAWL: PAGES 2,3,4,5, back page & Score. The News of the World found itself in reflective mood the morning after England’s scoreless draw in Turkey. Stretched above a picture of “hate-filled Alpay” poking a naughty finger in David Beckham’s face, FIST-ANBUL captured in one idiot tri-syllable the mood of salacious voyeurism among the tabloid press in the days following Eng­land’s final Euro 2004 qualifying match.

Along with its fellow red tops, England’s most popular Sunday paper appeared to have experienced some kind of radical conversion during the 0-0 draw in Istanbul. No longer feverishly wringing its hands at the modern footballing lifestyle, nor primly castigating Arsenal play­ers for gloating over a missed penalty, the tab­loid press chose instead to glory in the grubby details. Of the half-time scuffle in the Tunnel of Hate, the NOTW noted: “Even then there was no breaking of England’s indestructible team spirit.” After a month of pantomime-outrage at on-pitch scuffles, threats of strike action and rigidly detailed accounts of group-sex encounters, the paper was able to trumpet with no trace of irony Beckham’s declaration that “when the others came piling in it was another example of how we stood together”. Fighting, you see, is sometimes OK. For confirmation look no further than the Sun: ROONEY’S REVENGE, the paper crowed, reporting that during the half-time mêlée in Istanbul “England wonder- kid Wayne Rooney THUMPED foul-mouthed Turk Alpay”. “It was Ever­ton ace Rooney who put the yob in his place,” gurgled the front page, showing a refined ability to distinguish between yobbish behaviour and simply punching somebody in the face.

Similarly the Daily Mirror introduced still footage of the tunnel fracas with the joyful headline BUNDLE! accompanied by a back-page rant about “racial abuse” (denied by both sides) “disgraceful scenes”, “sickening taunts” and “simmering hate”. Sim­mering hate indeed. During the build-up to the game the Sun’s Richard Littlejohn had cautioned us that “if England win some oaf will claim that the upset this week forged team spirit”. Step forward the Sun’s chief sports writer Steven Howard who, under the head­line “Our boys stuck together well... they also struck together well”, rejoiced: “All’s well that ends well. A traumatic week can now be put to rest.”

Hypocrisy is, of course, as old as the printed press. But somehow the tabloid response to the month that shamed soccer/our brave boys stick it to the evil Turks (delete depending on what day of the week it is), seems to go beyond cynicism and into something more sinister. Undoubtedly the Sun and the News of the World are guilty of exaggeration. The day after the game the front page of the NOTW carried a picture of Rustu Recber colliding with Kieron Dyer, with the caption “SICKENING: Turkey’s goalie attacks Dyer”. More than just hysterical, this is simply wrong. Rustu did not attack Dyer and nobody out on the pitch was claiming he did. But why spoil a great picture?

The reaction to Alpay’s boorish attempts at gamesmanship has been equally out of all proportion. A sentence containing the words “the cynical cheating Turks, backed by 55,000 hate-filled fans” should start the odd alarm bell ringing. Who, exactly, is full of hate in this picture? In fact, the England players were ap­plauded from the field by a section of the crowd. Imag­ine, if you can, the Burberry-hatted England sup­port sagely applauding a triumphant visiting team at Wem­bley Stadium.

Tabloid newspapers always have a hidden agenda: selling more tabloid newspapers. Commercialism rath­er than conviction tends to drive the editorial stance. However, the red-top response to the game in Istanbul has had a flavour of something else. OUTRAGE AT THE ISTAN-BULLY chanted the Sun, above the headline TURF OUT THE TURK and an interview with former Aston Villa player Dennis Mortimer. “The sooner he leaves the better. Fans all over the country will give him hell,” Mortimer prophesied, backed up by the murderous call to arms of a “Villa season-ticket-holder”: “Alpay will be lynched when he gets back – and rightly so.” Inside, on its editorial page the Sun urges: “Send him back to Turkey. We’ll all pay to send Alpay home.” Does this still sound like foot­ball? Ever-conscious of manning the barricades at Dover, the Sun appears to be confusing the hysteria of the past few years over issues such as asylum and im­migration with a game of football. “Alpay, 30, was far from amused as we met him off his Turkish Airlines flight,” the paper smirked, below a picture of a Sun man waving a red card at the Villa defender, who lived and worked in this country.

Not that that deterred the “Jerk the Turk” movement (remove Alpay from your fantasy football team) or the Kick Alpay Out campaign, launched with the help of a cut-out petition to be sent to Doug Ellis. The Sun also took a moment to publicise the actions of a group of Aston Villa supporters who hung an effigy of their soon-to-be-ex-player from a lamppost, adding “a head with his photo on it” for extra verisimilitude.

To accuse the Sun of inciting racial hatred would be futile. If the gutter press has an agenda beyond sales it is the gutter itself. The tabloid tendency is to scandalise and embattle. We’ve been here before. Previously it was the hooligan problem, whereby every football sup­porter in the country became a potential knife-wielding psychopath. Now it is the players them­selves – and how much better if they’re also foreign. The News of the World’s Martin Samuel puts it best beneath the headline Alpay and Sukur are the Real Hooligans, salivating over “players filling the hooligan void with their own vile antics”. Filling the hooligan void is the key phrase here. Football, ever the gentleman’s game hijacked by hooligans, makes for excellent angry copy. Tabloid newspapers need bold type headlines and flames, sparked by violence, salacious tales or plain ignorance, will always be fanned.

As such there is no theoretical upper limit to the complicit hypocrisy of a sensationalist press. Witness the front page of the Sun the day after several Premiership footballers were questioned by police in connection with rape allegations. POLICE QUIZ ‘RAPE’ STARS, barked the lead story, opposite which, beneath the headline DREAM ON GUYS, the paper informed us that “TV Nina’s a game girl… Sexy Nina shows off the strip we’ve all been waiting for”, explaining the presence of mildly pornographic pictures of an actress from Sky TV’s Dream Team. “I like to be as flexible as possible,” Nina revealed, barely a column’s width from the story of an alleged gang rape involving a group of men who appear to be­lieve that what they were doing was, in any event, completely normal behaviour.

This is more than simple hypocrisy. This is the tabloid press taking an active part in creating a culture it affects to denounce. Thankfully there were no reports of significant anti-Turkish violence after the game in Istanbul. No kebab shops have been trashed, no cock­ney Cypriots wrongly bearded in the street. Read the papers though – it’s not for the want of trying.

From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month

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