The blame game

Closing a ground to England fans would just hurt the wrong people, believes Alan Bailey, who wants a more imaginative penalty imposed: a media blackout

By the time you read this, UEFA should have decided how to punish the attacks, constant racist chanting and pitch invasions which surrounded and intruded upon England’s 2-0 win over Turkey at the Stadium of Light in April. I can’t tell you what was decided on May 1 and what the FA’s response will be. But if the rumours are right it will be both too much and far, far too little.

The speculation is England will play Slovakia at Mid­­dlesbrough in June behind closed doors. But such a decision would penalise the innocent while scarcely bothering the guilty. What is needed, if we are to go down this route, is not so much a punishment as an event. One that will focus the attention of everyone with any stake in the national team; give them as close a taste to what a total ban on the national team would mean; and make pariahs of the hooligans responsible.

While we’re at it, too, a short, sharp shock for those in the media who are happy to advocate them for other people but who also stoke up the attitudes that feed the hatred and own up to no responsibility.

Closing a club ground can be an effective sanction – not that it is really needed in England these days, but it happens quite often abroad. Hooligans are fans, too, often with sea­son-tickets. Going to the game is part of their week­ly life. It doesn’t change people’s basic at­titudes but at least persuades them their actions have personally unpleasant consequences. Crude, and im­pacting on the innocent too, but effective.

But a simple match behind closed doors at international level is far less disruptive, especially if it just means the troublemakers can watch the game without the inconvenience of having to stop drinking. They are fans – at both England’s away game this season, in Slovakia and Liechtenstein, fans have bundled past security to see the game – but few go to every match. Part of the attraction for many is the alcohol. As punishments for wrongdoing go, being confined to a public house doesn’t seem too bad to me.

Only the blameless fans, who go to every game and have to put up with the nonsense that surrounds it, or the Teesside kids who have nagged mum and dad and will be deprived of the chance to watch England on their doorstep, will really suffer. There will be close to zero reaction from those who cause the problems.

If there is to be punishment, then why not some-thing dramatic? Which would give us a taste of what life without England would be like? Which would hurt the hooligan personally make them deeply unpopular? How? A media blackout. No live TV coverage. No radio commentary, or even score updates. No post-match summaries, either, just the scorers and scoreline. No reports, no colour pieces in the morning pa­pers. With compliance bought by the denial of accred­itation for the next five years’ England games to any news organisation that breaches the ban.

In the 1980s, there were days when there was no news. In protest at government reporting restrictions on Northern Ireland, journalists went on strike. No bulletins, no papers. It could be done then; why not now? The game would still be part of the England story, reports in the weekend’s papers would be sufficient delay, so journalists would be allowed to attend. Well, most of them.

Because as well as exposing the dam-age done by an element of the support, it would be time to discipline those in the media who play on the obsessions that contribute so much to the poison surr-ounding England. Top of these, surely, is the focus on war – against Germany, Arg­entina, the Irish and, at the Turkey game, Iraq.

Jeff Powell recognises the damage the mistaken belief football is a substitute for war can do. He used his Daily Mail column to praise Terry Butcher’s reaction to chants of “Nuke Baghdad”, “Kill all Moslems” and “Turkish scum”. “‘Shut it, you morons,’ he [Butcher] ordered. ‘This was a game of football, not a war. If you’re all so brave go and enlist to fight in Iraq.’”

Powell congratulated Butcher for “calling them to account for their base, banal prejudices” and would no doubt have had a stiff word with the Mail writer who contrasted the “passion” of a speech by a Gulf War commander with Sven-Göran Eriksson and wrote: “I make no apology for drawing the comparison. Football is not war, but it is the substitute by which this warrior nation defines its pride most frequently and most intensely between periods of armed conflict.”

The same writer described being sat among the England fans in Vaduz as being “an unexpected pleasure”. “With the hooligans denied entry… the 900 or so genuine supporters were able to enjoy the occasion,” he went on. “There was a little black humour when they added the anti-war French to the Scots and Irish on their stand-up-to-hate list.”

So, stand up on Saturday and sing “hate the fucking Irish”, that’s okay by this journalist… coincidentally named Jeff Powell, the same name as the man who will condemn chants against Turkish people on the Wed-nesday night. But you had already worked that out.

As with every England crowd, the 900 in Vaduz were a mixed bunch and I am not seeking to condemn anything like all of them – if I hadn’t failed in the ballot for a ticket then I would have been in the ground in Vaduz, not in a bar there. But Powell’s enjoyment of one section’s songs one day and condemnation of simi­lar the next marks him out as part of the problem. The presence of prejudices in “respectable” parts of the press reaffirms them. All that England’s hoolie faction are doing is putting into coarser words and actions what they see as accepted opinion.

Perhaps Jeff would condemn those fans who, on an officially sanctioned trip to England’s match in Greece in 2001, told my tour guide with a laugh that the Greek navy’s response to sinking boats of refugees should be to “let them drown”. But he works for the paper which ran a cartoon after 58 Chinese asylum seekers were found suffocated at Dover in 2000, showing a similar lorry with the punchline: “I hear Mo Mowlam has asked the queen to move out of Buckingham Palace for us.”

Powell should not be alone in facing a ban and nor would it be setting a precedent. Before Eriksson’s first competitive game, a Century FM breakfast radio DJ rang him, pretending to be Kevin Keegan offering advice. The FA’s response was to cancel the station’s accreditation. But who has done the greater damage to England, a hoax caller or the Sun when they sent their Page Three Oompah band to try to disturb the sleep of the Germany squad before the Munich game in 2001? Or the Daily Mirror with their “Achtung! Surrender” front page at Euro 96?

To stamp out xenophobia among the fans you have to stamp it out in the media, too. A ban on ticket sales for Oct­ober’s game in Turkey, for instance, may be a necessary treatment of the symp­toms of the English disease but does nothing about the causes. (Too many England fans – many perfectly law-abiding – incidentally, concentrate not on our problems but on Turkey’s own following. I for one am not content to argue the toss in the Unfair Play League relegation zone.)

I realise none of this will happen. The FA may ban a radio station, but only because it is too small to fight back; they would not have the guts to stand up to a major paper as a whole or even particular journalists. Though they could point out to the TV companies the need to take action and the damage that they too would suffer in the event of a total ban, they will not do so because it would mean throwing away money in the short term. Instead, any punishment will be borne solely by the fans and will do no little or no good.

But if England’s problems persist and lead eventually to international suspension or expulsion, and the FA claim they did everything they could, don’t believe them for a moment. If you are going to ban the fans for a game, then ban the cameras and ban Jeff Powell.

From WSC 196 June 2003. What was happening this month