Same old stories?

The conflicting emotions experienced by those who followed the England team around France are described by Mark Perryman & Tom Davies

During this world Cup tattoos and beer bellies have been made to symbolize all that is supposedly wrong with England abroad.

“New Football” was a myth we were according to the English press; the racist, fascist-sympathizing male swine were just the same as they’d ever been and couldn’t England hurry up and lose to Argentina and get this unruly mob off our screens. Never mind the fact that a growing proportion of those who follow England abroad are actually women, no mention of the increasing numbers of family groups

travelling as fans. There are precious few black faces among the supporters, but one flag fluttering away in the midst of the England end at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille testified to the potential diversity of England’s away fans: “Support England, Support the Striking Essex Firefighters”.

As we travelled on to Toulouse, the shameful aftermath of Marseille was used to rubbish the thousands of England fans who  never even saw the trouble, let alone instigated it. Sections of the British media seriously suggested that the England team should be brought home in national disgrace. The French media, meanwhile, portrayed Tou-louse as a city preparing for war, shutters down, batons up. The reality was pleasantly different. The policing was obvious enough but so too was the air of  calm wholly absent from what we read in the papers

about city’s impening plight. On match day the city hall was bedecked with the biggest collection of St George’s Cross flags you’re likely to see outside Wembley, and the locals soon sussed out that for the vast majority of fans being loud in your support for the team doesn’t translate into violent thuggery.

The same glaring gap between the reality of the travelling fans’ experience and the way it was represented in the papers hit us when we arrived in St Etienne on the eve of what the pundits had predicted would be the Falklands War revisited. Strange that hundreds of locals should have leased out their flats to the dangerous English as part of a scheme called “Bonne Nuit chez nous”. Not much evidence of the fear of pillage there.

England away certainly doesn’t provide those clappy-happy media moments offered by Brazilian samba drumming. The sheer weight of our war-waging history will always be central to whatever image the English create to impress others with. The trouble is that our war references are linked to the present, while the horned helmets of the Scandinavians, for example, are a jokey reminder of a faraway past.

But the English are also fiercely loyal to a game and a fan-led culture that is being transformed into a vehicle for selling fizzy drinks and hamburgers. It’s this passionate defence of the old footballing traditions that have led to our songs, our flags and our scarf waving being copied by others – cock an ear to the Danes if you want to hear how our chants get translated. And it’s also the reason why an entire stand of English fans united in their refusal to join in with one more round of Mexican waves. At 2-2 and with extra time beckoning, there seemed to be something on the pitch more important than another bout of stadium jollity.

The camera crews prowled outside the stadium in St Etienne, looking for pictures of the gathering fans to beam back home. For the English all they got was cans in hand and the medley of “Two World Wars”, “No Surrender” and “What’s It Like to Lose A War”. For most it’s no big political statement, but it hardly puts us at the top of the list for party invites.

St Etienne did, however, offer another image, when three blokes came out of the car park dressed head to toe as lions, followed by another trio kitted out as crusaders. We came home to be treated to a media monologue about all that is wrong with Englishness and absolutely no suggestions for what might be done, short of yet more ridiculous schemes to stop those who want to support England from travelling abroad. In the St Etienne car park is where the answer lies – fans finding a way of expressing their devotion in a manner that comes out of our national history and our footballing traditions.

It might be clutching at straws, but that’s what the thugs do. Those who actively try to stir up the fans, to good or bad ends, will always be a minority. It was an estimated two per cent, or 400, out of the 20,000 England fans who grabbed the headlines in Marseille. Imagine if a similar number had dressed up, learned to bang a drum or stitched together a flag to unfurl over an entire stand – we’d have been the toast of the tournament. Apart from a few hundred years of history, what’s stopping us?  Mark Perryman


Was anyone surprised by what happened in Marseille? The most notorious set of supporters in the world converging on one of the most troubled cities in a country beset by racial tension. Throw in one of western Europe’s more aggressive policing units, the CRS, and voilà!, a riot waiting to happen.

I arrived at the Prado beach about half an hour before kick-off and all seemed well. English and Tunisian fans mingled amicably enough, bar the odd provocative gesture, and it was easy enough to let yourself be convinced that here, at last, was what supporting England abroad should be all about. One could almost overlook details such as the bawling down by each set of fans of the other’s national anthem as old habits dying hard.

How naive we were. When Shearer scored all hell broke loose. A couple of bottles were thrown from the temporary stand occupied by Tunisian fans, a couple were returned from the England section. The locals and a few English fans charged and counter-charged each other before the CRS arrived and cleared all the England fans away. Most of the English retreated to nearby bars to watch the second half of the match in relative peace. However, as my group made our way from the seafront to the metro station we came under fire again from rock and bottle-throwing kids from the surrounding estates before escaping on a train back to the Old Port car park.

My overriding impression of the carnage was that England’s travelling support, so used to people being afraid of them wherever they go, suddenly found themselves seriously out of their depth when confronted with some heavy duty urban strife. This wasn’t the local team’s hooligans coming out to have a crack at the English as might have been the case in Rome or Rotterdam. This looked like people from some of the most troubled parts of the south of France making themselves known.

While most of the English fans who travelled to Marseille weren’t in the least bit interested in trouble, there was still an undercurrent of needless provocation, of disrespecting other countries and cultures, which will always help create the conditions in which trouble occurs. The England-supporting family we saw in the city centre kitted out in “No Surrender/Spirit of Drumcree” T-shirts may like to think they’re not part of the problem, but clearly they are. And why, for example, do some boneheads think it is OK to sing the Loyalist anthem “The Sash” at England games when no one would dare sing it at a Scotland match (where the prevailing mood is very much anti-Old Firm)?

The English, even when they’re behaving, give the impression of being an utterly charmless bunch. This is not a snobbish point: the Tartan Army or Ireland’s support could hardly be described as cool or stylish, and they’re certainly not sober, yet the striking contrast between their experiences and those of the English remains.

In the last two World Cups, I’ve watched Scotland play in Paris and Ireland play in New York in circumstances very similar to the Plage du Prado in Marseille, games seen on big screens by thousands of drunk football fans in cities with their fair share of social problems, and I’ve had a great time. What happened in Marseille may have told us as much about modern France as modern England but it was still an experience best endured sober. It was horrible. Tom Davies

From WSC 138 August 1998. What was happening this month