Beaten but unbowed

The team were still a letdown, but England had more winning ways off the pitch, to the relief of Philip Cornwall

Six years ago, at Euro 2000, I was on the point of giving up on England. I had the masochistic streak needed to cope with events on the pitch, but not what came with it for much longer: the sullen contempt for anything and anyone who wasn’t English that radiated from so many of the team’s followers even if they weren’t expressing it in word, song, action. Some of these people seethed in their sleep.

Things were, slowly, getting better. But too slowly, such that you couldn’t shake off the suspicion that England had been given two games in Charleroi simply because it was the least regarded of the venues. We were herded on to coaches after the last-gasp defeat to Romania as they wouldn’t risk having a train-load of us. The threat had been there that even if we secured the draw we needed we would have been sent home anyway if there was a repeat of the small-scale but too often repeated incidents that had afflicted Belgium.

And what did we have to look forward to? The 2002 World Cup qualifying draw meant facing Germany, the opposition that had, inevitably, provoked the greatest outbreak of trouble in Charleroi; and four days after the final the 2006 tournament was awarded not, as expected, to South Africa, but to the Germans, as England’s bid found new ways for us to experience football embarrassment. It wasn’t just a case of would we qualify, but would we still be allowed to enter and what would we get up to if we did reach the finals?

Six years on, the team are still finding new variations on old disastrous themes. But now, remarkably, they are 90 per cent of the strain, rather than the old 50-50 split. There were differences between watching England and other teams in Germany, but for the most part, as every match was turned into a home one with thousands more at the Fan Fest, differences for the good. The English presence was visible and welcome across the tournament. How did this happen?

The slow improvement that was visible around 2000 was not because the troublemakers had gone away or been deterred yet; it was more that the proximity of France in 1998 and then the Low Countries had helped bring in a new class of travelling fan and that the effect was to dilute the poison. Euro 96 had helped, with English people around the country going to see international football for the first time. If you’ve enjoyed a tournament at home, why not try one on holiday? The efforts of fan groups in pointing out that there was more than one way to support England were significant, too, in loosening media opinion and therefore influencing the public. They remain so. But it was stick as well as carrot and we still need both.

The first determined use of anti-hooligan legislation, with banning orders forcing convicted troublemakers to hand in their passports at tournament time, worked. Some try to evade the regulations and no doubt some succeed, but most don’t and the deterrent effect should not be underestimated either. There was greater co-operation, too, between the British police and overseas forces but also with academics and with fan groups, seeing both as part of the solution.

The changes in the make-up of the support and law-and-order measures that work have heavily influenced the waverers, those in the middle who too often in the past enjoyed being on the fringes of mayhem rather than getting on with the party. They still read hoolie porn, but that’s as close to the action as they get.

There has been some luck. It was always relatively unlikely that the 2002 World Cup would see similar scenes to competitions in Europe because it was too damned expensive to fly halfway round the world and then risk deportation. Euro 2004 was in Portugal, a sunny destination that would encourage families and fans who hadn’t been before to go, to carry on breaking up the long-dominant macho mix.

Then there was the team. They have enjoyed three fairly smooth (by England standards) qualifying campaigns. No repeats of 1994. Though they then disappoint – or perhaps do exactly as well as you should expect – they have hung around longer than in 1998 or 2000, increasing the amount of time that they occupy centre stage in an England-obsessed country. This again increases the desirability of actually going to watch them. And however much I might dislike celebrity culture in general and how it has built up around football in particular, it has changed the tabloid game: the low lifes in the press are paying for gossip, not chasing tip-offs about trouble or worse.

There’s still much to worry about, as Stuttgart showed. We still export all aspects of our drinking culture, including what happens at what is still “closing time” at weekends all over the country. Some new fans may treat the war songs as just England’s chants, not to be taken seriously, but plenty carry the grudges. “Schnell! Achtung! Showers to the right!” shouted one imbecile at a tram stop on the way to the Portugal game. Most fans respected the opposition’s national anthem that day, though some jeered Luis Figo’s turn at the mic with the anti-discrimination speech. But in all the conversations I had with friends and fans and hoteliers and barmen and train staff in Germany, not once did I find myself talking about the English disease, unless you mean the inability to pass to someone wearing the same coloured shirt. No need to travel forever with an apology and a reassurance on my lips, ready for when someone found out I might be one of “them”. I hope so much it lasts.

Not long ago, a large slice, perhaps more than half, of England’s support did not deserve a team as good even as Kevin Keegan’s strugglers. Now, till we were reduced to ten men in Gelsenkirchen, the team did not deserve the support it received.

From WSC 234 August 2006. What was happening this month