Football hooligans do it for England

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 June, 1998, 12:00am

The English football hooligan is alive and well and, when not laying waste to some foreign field, could be selling antiques for a living. While the rest of the world settles down to celebrate the World Cup soccer carnival, some England supporters seem to think it is their opportunity to fight in memory of the British Empire.

The face of the English fan is changing, with more women and families trooping on to the terraces to cheer on the national side. The profile of the thug is also altering, with many of those arrested for kicking and thumping their way through the streets of Marseilles holding middle-class jobs.

One man pictured in the British press waving a bottle of booze while burning the Tunisian flag in Marseilles has been identified as Peter Miller, a 35-year-old antiques dealer who is an expert on Wedgwood and Royal Doulton pottery. Others arrested by the French police have been found to live in leafy suburbs, holding jobs in accountancy and other professions which pay enough to finance their trips overseas.

But while most of England hangs its head in shame at the international attention given to the hard core of fans intent on violence, condemnation has been tempered by the country's general xenophobia. A former government minister excused the World Cup louts, claiming it was a natural part of the English mentality to go abroad and fight for the flag.

Former defence minister and military historian Alan Clark claimed French police unfairly targeted English fans. 'In a sense that is a kind of compliment to the English martial spirit, but they really haven't got a chance, these guys. Everybody is out to get them,' said the maverick Conservative MP.

'Football matches are now a substitute for the old medieval tournaments. They are in their nature aggressive and confrontational, so it is perfectly natural some of the fans should be obstreperous.' Other politicians have been quick to distance themselves from Mr Clark's comments, but experts say this kind of nationalism is at the heart of much of the violence exhibited by English fans.

Conscious of this criticism, the Football Association (FA) has been trying to change the image of the national squad, and has dropped the St George's flag as the team's logo in favour of an emblem comprising three lions.

Academics at Leicester University's Football Research Centre have been working with the FA to identify new ways of marketing the game to eradicate the xenophobia.

'What we have seen from the violence in Marseilles is that those people causing the trouble seem to be more middle-class, with a disposable income. These people aren't unemployed or scratching around for a job, but they seem set on causing this kind of violence,' said Sean Perkins, a research assistant at the centre.

The violence could not be attributed just to drunkenness or high spirited excitement, he said. Danish and Scottish fans were also known for their alcoholic excesses, but the English distinguished themselves by looking for trouble.

'The Scottish have their self-styled Tartan Army, which is a celebration of the Scottish culture, but there is an argument England does not have an identity in the same sort of way now it has lost its empire. Yet these people still feel they have to conquer the enemy in a foreign land,' said Mr Perkins.

'It's all about the buzz of being part of something - being part of a group and travelling abroad. They see the whole idea of causing trouble as an extension of supporting their country. The England following has always had this very nationalistic bent. People think they are out there fighting battles for the nation.' Violence at English games has been much reduced in recent years following the introduction of all-seater stadiums and other measures, so that now some matches have been held without any police presence in the grounds. But overseas games by the national side still carry with them the threat of violence from travelling supporters wherever they are played.

England fan Paul Thomas, 36, caught up in the street battles between rival fans in Marseilles, admitted some supporters were looking to cause trouble but denied they were motivated by a sense of patriotism.

'The vast majority of English fans behaved themselves. We have been quite dismayed at media coverage so that just a small element has got all the attention.

'But I'm not sure about this nationalism thing. They are just hooligans. I don't think nationalism is the starting point. It's just violence. These are people who just want a punch-up,' he said.

'I think we would challenge the idea that most of the English fans are different from fans from other countries. The media present the English fans as aggressive white nationalists, and this just provoked the Arab youths in Marseilles. They were up for a riot and people were being attacked just because they were English.' Mr Thomas, who is a volunteer working with the English Football Supporters' Association, said he had been threatened with a knife twice in 18 hours by different groups of Tunisian fans before Monday's match.

'We were chased for our lives by a mob armed with knives on Sunday night, and we only escaped because a restaurant owner pulled us into his restaurant and pulled down the steel shutters,' he said.

Most of the English fans who were arrested were in their mid-30s, but younger supporters were making an effort to befriend the people of Marseilles.

'Many of the younger English fans were trying very hard to speak some basic French. They weren't going around town singing provocative songs. They weren't marching through town as a mob, just wandering from bar to bar in small groups.' The British Government has made it clear it has zero tolerance for the hooligans, and is worried they are tarnishing England's image and endangering the country's chance of hosting major sporting events. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the government would consider tough new measures and called on employers to penalise any staff convicted of football-related offences.

Courts have been given the power to issue restriction orders forbidding hooligans convicted in Britain from leaving the country. So far, 69 men convicted of offences connected to soccer matches have had restriction orders imposed which require them to report to police stations in Britain on the day England matches are played in France.

A National Criminal Intelligence Squad has been established to identify potential troublemakers. They have divided supporters into three groups: the normal peaceful fans; those with the potential to get involved in violence should it flare up; and the ringleaders who seek to start trouble.

Police say it is members of this third group, known as Category C supporters, who are the most dangerous. Typically, they do not get involved in fighting themselves but stand on the sidelines and direct operations. Because they do not attack rival fans they often do not have criminal convictions, and so police have been unable to stop them travelling to France. There are believed to be several hundred Category C fans, many of whom are biding their time before heading for the World Cup tournament to organise street battles against some of England's traditional football rivals.

Some fans believe the violence in Marseilles was just a taster for real trouble if England makes it through to later rounds of the tournament and is drawn against Germany or Argentina.

France, meanwhile, waits and worries.