Vocal support

England go into Euro 2004 confident that they can finally live up to expectations, with the steps taken to prevent violence likely to stop the country being embarassed by its supporters as in previous years. But is enough being done to control their mouths, as well as their fists?

Cautious optimism seems in order for England, on and off the pitch, as they head for Portugal. The team’s prospects are considered as good as they have been for a major tournament since before Euro 88 – but we all know how that ended. More, though, has been done than ever to try to ensure that England are not embarrassed by their support. Everyone knows there is a risk the team could be sent home unbeaten due to violence from a minority of fans and at last some ser­ious steps have been taken.

In truth the levels of violence have been on a steady decline for some time. Law-abiding England fans will point to the problems other countries suffer and wonder why they are singled out. David Swift, the deputy chief constable of Staf­fordshire and the man responsible for the English authorities’ response to hool­iganism, spoke at a recent meeting of London England fans. He said that at a gathering of his European equivalents, the Italian delegate announced that they had no problem with hooliganism; the rest of the room burst out laughing. In a season when a high-profile league match, the Rome derby, had to be abandoned, you can see why, unless by “no problem” the Italian delegate meant he didn’t care.

But there are two big issues for England. First, while others tend to misbehave at home England export trouble and have done so for so many years that the rest of the world are running out of patience. Second, lurid exaggerations of what has gone on have given many the sense that all English fans are hooligans, so that the Neanderthals of Europe see a game against England or the English as the major test of their rucking capabilities, increasing the likelihood of attacks and counter-attacks. Action has been taken to combat both.

The number of banning orders issued to prevent troublemakers from travelling to games has risen twentyfold since Euro 2000 – which takes out a swathe of hooligans and deters others from stepping out of line. The reluctance of magistrates to use these powers in the past, a failing which led to trouble and then calls for more draconian legislation, has been overcome; let us hope that the measures are successful. The Football Association, meanwhile, have bought up late-released tickets for England’s matches so they did not fall into the hands of people who have not been through their vetting procedures. They did this with little hope of selling them to England members, most of whom already had theirs. The exercise will set them back £300,000.

Meanwhile, fan organisations, the British Council and the Foreign Office are helping to arrange a series of events in Portugal that should demonstrate to those fearful of England and those looking for a fight that the bulk of the sup­port is far from the stereotype.

This is not to say that there will be no trouble in Portugal. There remains “Saturday night’s all right for fighting” crowd, those who ensure that 70 per cent of late-night admissions to accident and emergency are alcohol related when at home, then head abroad in the hope of appearing on a Sky One documentary. The sanguine David Swift is hoping, given that 200,000 UK citizens are expected in Portugal, that incidents are no worse than would be expected from that number at home, and that drunk young men fight­ing are reported as such.

In addition, while the anti-hooligan measures may cow the hardcore in the England crowd into keeping their fists down, little has been done about their throats. The political chants remain the same for a section of the support, leading in Sweden to the branding of Alan Thompson as an IRA sympathiser because he plays for Celtic. Though the tab­loid press will no doubt condemn the consequences, without their encouragement no England fan would have been calling Zlatan Ibrahimovic “an asylum-seeking bastard” who should “fuck off back to Bosnia”. The Express and the Star, whose owner ranted that “all Germans are Nazis” at a recent business meeting, will no doubt hypocritically condemn any who wind up fighting actual Germans.

The current England coach and captain have stood out against violence. A year ago their messages to fans at Middlesbrough for the Slovakia game were played over and over on the big screens in response to events at Sunderland when Turkey visited. But now we need to hear Sven-Göran Eriksson and David Beckham stand up to the lingering political poison and declare that the Second World War, the troubles in Ireland, immigration and the war on terrorism have nothing to do with their football team.

From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month