Forever In-ger-land

The yobs are back. As if they ever went away. If anything proves that the cult of middle-class football is an all-played-out fantasy, it's the pathetic, sickening scenes from Marseilles. Hornby, Baddiel and Hancock: where are you now?
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The Independent Culture
LEGAL NOTE: - References to Nick Hancock are wrong - the comment was by Frank Skinner - legal complaint received.

Suzanne Moore

Here we go, here we go, here we go, I thought to myself when the news of the England fans rioting in Marseilles started coming in. My heart did not miss a beat. After all, isn't this part of our glorious tradition? Football's coming home in the way it always comes home when it goes abroad. Bloody, bruised, beaten senseless. Its hardly news, is it, that In-ger- land fans sometimes behave like animals? But I patiently awaited the voice of the experts, and now of course I realise that, not being a devotee, I have got it all wrong.

You see this behaviour is nothing to do with football. The massed ranks of the experts and the Government - who seem to have now suspended all political duties in favour of cheer leading for our boys - have uniformly condemned this behaviour. It is a disgrace, shameful and, even worse, it might ruin our chances of making some money out of hosting the next World Cup.

Sir Brian Hayes, the Football Association security chief, explains to oiks such as myself. "This has got nothing to do with football." Oh, I see. What has it to do with then? Chess? We should hardly be surprised that the behaviour of football supporters has got nothing to do with football when, over the past few weeks, we have been reassured that the behaviour of footballers themselves has got nothing to do with football either. It is easy to work out why this has happened. Just as there is Old Labour and New Labour, so there is Old Football and New Football. Old football: the Stanley knives, the yobbery, the racism, the mindless xenophobia of the old firms has given way to the New Football. Just as we believed a political party could be made over with a few trendy haircuts, power dressers and well-chosen sound bites, so too a campaign has been waged to make over football in a new Nineties image. Well, you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can't fool me.

The new football: cosmopolitan, sophisticated, family-orientated, smugly middle-class, has its own genre of literature, from Fever Pitch onwards. It is personified by the likes of Lineker, revered as an intellectual because he can speak more than one language and does crisp adverts, David Beckham, too sexy for his shorts so he has to wear sarongs, and all-round family man David Seaman, so considerate that he forgets his own son's birthday. The New Football has dispensed with moronic chants and has replaced them with "Vindaloo": a post-modern, multi- cultural ditty put together by a comedian, a conceptual artist and a fey bass-player.

The New Football is full of spiritual healing (fans are waving flags saying "Come on Eileen"), God-fearing managers, and T-shirts with quotes from Baudrillard on the back. Actually this is fantasy football, the fantasy being that this media invention has any bearing on the atavistic nature of the game itself.

Lately, however, the fantasy has been more and more difficult to sustain. The Old Football has a nasty habit of interrupting this reverie. Of course, as we keep being reassured, only a tiny minority of football fans behave like hooligans and only a tiny minority of football players behave like Neanderthals. Gazza beats his wife, Ryan Giggs breaks his girlfriend's nose, Stan Collymore kicks Ulrika. Somehow, we have been encouraged to pretend that such violence comes out of nowhere. It is excused by commentators who say that it comes from too much pressure, from plucking young guys out of working-class ghettos and giving them more money and fame than they know what to do with.

What gross self-deception this all is. The Vindaloonies, as the Star fondly called the rioters, were up against the French Robocops. It makes it all sound like a good, all-out rumble. Yet the traumatised restaurant owners of Marseilles and the reporters talk of a terrifying atmosphere of "pure hate". Where does such hatred come from? If it doesn't come from football - because football is not like that - and it doesn't come from England - because we are not like that - how come it predictably and systematically materialises every time claims are made that it has gone for good? It seems to me, a mere observer - and a girlie to boot - that we are actually rather good at exporting pure hatred, it is part of our patriotic duty.

It also appears that, despite all the brow-beating, it is clear how this situation has come about. The much-derided yob culture of the terraces has been promoted by, in the words of that famous Loaded slogan "men who should know better". Now that we live in the fin-de-siecle state of perpetual irony, anything can be said as long as it is said with a knowing wink. There is not much ironic about getting your throat slit or dragging your girlfriend kicking and screaming out of a bar, but our lads will have a go anyway, because it's all a bit of a giggle. Jokes were made on Fantasy Football about Collymore's treatment of Ulrika Jonsson. If TV detector vans come round while you're watching the match and the bloke knocks at the door, what should you do? According to Nick Hancock on Fantasy Football on Sunday night, you should headbutt him. Cute eh?

To make a stand over this of course is to be (a) frightfully politically correct or (b) not to really understand the nature of this noble sport. I plead guilty on both counts. In fact I'll have a go because I don't just think I'm hard enough, I know I am. Real men do not beat women, do not rampage through the streets of France burning Tunisian flags. But unfortunately, in the madness that is the World Cup, the realest men in the world are footballers and their sheep-like supporters. This tournament means that all normal play is cancelled. A couple of months ago we were worried about the effects of yob culture on our boys. Why don't they want to learn to read? Why are they falling by the wayside? Some of us were concerned about the nasty side-effects of the loss of traditional forms of male validation; the figures on domestic violence and the increase in date-rape that we reported yesterday. Ministers were starting to tackle these issues, they had become part of a pressing public debate.

Now, everything must be sacrificed to the radical populism that football signifies even to those who have never shown the least interest in it in the past. We have gone back to square one and are talking about a particular kind of male violence that erupts, without bothering to look at the culture that produces it. Those who think that boxing is barbaric because two mutually consenting adults may give each other brain damage are now rapidly passing the buck. Normal footballers and normal fans are well-behaved, they keep on telling us it's just that, well, these aliens appear in our midst who haven't realised the new rules of the new game.

I take no pleasure in saying this nor in feeling that the "ambassadors" for our country have done a pretty good job in relaying to the rest of the world what our country is actually like. I would prefer to ignore the World Cup than be dragged into another dumb punch-up. It is all a horrible distraction. Instead of writing this I could be in front of the box. I could be watching staged fights, blood and guts and cheap emotion, I could be cheering for the underdogs: I had been planning to watch Jerry Springer.

As the men who are paid a fortune for their insight keep saying, "It's not about winning or losing". No, I see that. Its about taking each other apart. I may not be an expert, but I now understand the game better than ever: the New Football, just like the Old Football, is all about deluding ourselves - and on that score at least no one can accuse us of being anything other than world class.