It's getting better all the time, but too many England fans till carry unnecessary baggage. Tom Davies saw mixed messages on display at Euro 2000

Anyone stumbling unawares into the neutral section behind one of the goals at the Czech Republic v France game in Bruges might have been forgiven for wondering who was playing. For there, amid the smattering of French blue and Czech red, were five Leyton Orient shirts. Admittedly I was wearing one of them, but this is no parochial club boast – there were also shirts and flags from Wycombe and Colchester and Cambridge and Burnley. Together, they represent English football’s forgotten travelling contingent – the dedicated neutrals – and they were out in force in the Low Countries.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 people went to Belgium and Holland to watch England games, but at times it seemed as though there were almost as many again watching other games. The sheer number of Eng­lish – and Scottish – fans at neutral games, as at France 98 and to a lesser extent in the US in 1994, is a phenomenon which has not been commented on by anyone except, belatedly, the Observer.

For those of us who follow lower division football, the appeal is obvious. We are never going to get a chance to watch the Zidanes, Figos and Mendietas in the normal course of a season, and even if we could it is impossible to enjoy European club competition because of the hyperbolic emptiness at the heart of it all. A Champions League group game will never matter in the same way Spain v Slovenia does. Here, teams from Romania can beat teams from England in a way they are prevented from doing in the European Cup.

Of course, Euro 2000 was as tainted by commercialism and, occasionally, nationalism as any other modern football event, but it still had that festive ambience that domestic football doesn’t have space to offer, a chance to enjoy football innocently for once. It helped that the ticketing arrangements were smoother than at any of the previous three tournaments I’ve attended, even if the helpfulness of stewards, police and signposting varied considerably.

But, still, that commercialism did grate in Holland and Belgium. The peripheral entertainments at the stadiums were not designed for those with a low tolerance threshold of bad Europop and dreadful Queen records, which boomed over tannoys at every opportunity. You just wished that the stadium organisers would stop trying to choreograph the crowd and let them do their own thing. And the playing of music after goals should be banned from football for good.

But behind the simple pleasures of Bruges, Rotterdam, Eindhoven and Brussels lurked the ever-present angst that comes with following England. Everywhere we went we faced the inevitable “You English? You hooligans?” banter from bar staff, while conversation on football matters invariably ended in embarrassed shoulder-shrugging at the tactical and technical in­eptitude of our team.

Having applied for random tickets months before the draw was made, I didn’t see any England games – Phil Neville’s blunder ensuring that my Brussels quarter-final ticket enabled me to see Gheorghe Hagi’s bitter swansong rather than Alan Shearer’s – so I can’t comment too much on the trouble. Suffice to say that trusted eyewitnesses told me that what hap­pened in Brussels on the day before the Germany game was far worse than the minute or so of photogenic mayhem in Charleroi the following day.

I was glad I wasn’t there, but I was also glad I was out of the country and therefore managed to read only a fraction of the drivel pumped out in the British pap­ers about the trouble. Events like those in Belgium are a godsend to the media, offering a golden opportunity to every cossetted columnist who’s ever been woken up in the night by drunks singing in the street to sound off about our “yob culture” without doing any research. How much easier than having to write in depth about Colombia or the middle east. Hugo Young of the Guardian, for example, may be able to recite EU treaty documents in his sleep but on the subject of football and its fans he has nothing more to offer than lazy generalisations.

There was also more than a whiff of class hatred about it all. Sometimes it seems that England fans are vilified less for their violence and bigotry than for their unkempt, uncool appearance (fascists dress better at Lazio, obviously). Hence, as with James Shayler in France and Paul Scarrott before him, we had to have monsters made flesh – this time in the form of “Pussy Hunter” and his unsavoury mates. Far better to chas­tise individuals than address the overall xenophobic malaise.

It is this, rather than isolated incidents of chair chucking, that really marks out the English abroad. “No Surrender to the IRA”, for example, is sung with far more venom now – six years after the first ceasefires were called in Northern Ireland – than it ever was when English cities were actually being bombed. It’s clear that many non-violent England fans are quite happy to join in with songs like this and “If it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts”. It’s the light they shed on English bigotry and ignorance that is more depressing than the violence itself.

But even these familiar arguments cannot quite explain the problem. After all, you would have to really go some to claim that England is a more racist country than, say, France or Italy, but what comes across at tournament after tournament is that many English people simply do not know how to enjoy themselves. Middle England venerates the private and the personal and cannot cope with the idea of large-scale occupation of public space. So it is no surprise that some fans can’t enjoy a big public gathering without feeling naughty and acting bad.

Walking down the Damrak in Amsterdam before the Spain v Slovenia game, for example, was a delight. The instinctive reactions of rival fans when they confronted each other was to shake hands and sing. Why should that be so hard for a sizable minority of England fans? I enjoyed the German victory im­mensely and celebrated it with decent, honest England fans, but I would have enjoyed it even more had I been in a bar containing fewer people with the mentality of “We’re England. Who the fuck are you?”

Still, in my experience of watching England on and off over the past six years, things have improved in many ways. Opposing anthems are no longer routinely booed. A wider range of people are going, but the nutters are still intent on bossing things, especially away from home.

The post-Charleroi outcry also offers some hopeful signs that the wider media are beginning to fall out of love with football. Perhaps the “football boom” is nearing its end. Frankly, for those of us who want to enjoy tournaments like this free of belligerence and bullshit, it would be a blessed relief.

From WSC 162 August 2000. What was happening this month

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