Leading Article: How to stop the hooligans: pull out of the World Cup

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IF ANYTHING was more depressing than the World Cup violence in Marseilles, it was the reaction of the British football authorities. Amongst the usual platitudes - only a small minority, not real fans; how terrible that their good name should be soiled - not once did Graham Kelly, Secretary of the Football Association, mention the suffering of the people of Marseilles. Through no fault of their own they have had to play host to hundreds of drunken English yobs, and have had their hospitality rewarded with rioting, vandalism and abuse. Perversely perhaps, the fans' antics lend weight to the campaign to bring the World Cup to England in 2006. At least that way we will only destroy our own cities.

We have grown used to the appearance of English football fans on foreign soil coinciding with riots and violence. Although other countries have their hooligan element, we kid ourselves if we deny that ours is far, far worse. Partly it is the organised hooligan gangs. But the police have developed sophisticated and, in large measure, successful techniques for preventing organised fan violence. The real problem is with the more opportunistic thugs who have taken the streets of Marseilles apart over the past two days.

The fundamental problem goes a lot deeper than football, and lies with the susceptibility of the young British male to violence. This is what lies behind so many of our social ills, and is the last thing that we should be exporting. For it is football that has become the vehicle for these cocksure young adolescents. So it was always depressingly inevitable that the cocktail of jingoism, English football fans, the World Cup and foreign travel would produce the violence visited upon Marseilles. Whatever improvements there have been to the violent atmosphere that was so prevalent in the domestic game in the Seventies and Eighties, there is still a hooligan element at most league matches. The police have made great strides in cracking down on the more organised groups. But individual thugs are, by their very nature, more difficult to contain and predict.

The sad truth is that we have tried almost everything to stop hooliganism and have failed. Travel bans, ticket restrictions, even dedicated police squads, have all had some effect. But there is something so fundamentally untrustworthy about the behaviour of young English fans abroad that it is now time to impose the ultimate sanction: we should withdraw from the World Cup and spare France any more violence and the nation any more shame.

In the long run the most fruitful approach may be to strangle the jingoism at birth by abolishing the England team. There are all sorts of historical reasons why the UK, alone amongst footballing nations, has four separate teams, but if we were to merge the home nations into a Great Britain side then not only would there be less cause for raucous nationalism, we might even be more successful. Certainly the British Lions rugby team is of a far higher standard than any of its individual component teams.

When English club football could offer nothing other than the "small minority" argument in its defence, Uefa banned our teams. Fifa would be perfectly justified in imposing the same sanction on the national team. It is no good arguing that the majority of fans are law abiding. So what? The minority is an ever-present feature accompanying the England football team. The only way to stop the thugs - and the only appropriate way of saying sorry to the people of Marseilles - is for the team to pack its bags and catch the first flight home.

The World Cup is supposed, above all, to be a festival of football, the so-called "beautiful game". Let us put that to the test. If fans really are dedicated to the sport rather than a warped sense of nationalism, then they should thrill to the sight of Bulgaria playing Nigeria no less than that of England taking on Romania.