Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (right) thought she was asking for trouble when she took her son to Spurs at the weekend. She was expecting racism, sexism and violence, but she discovered that football is a funny old game
Like many others, I was outraged when I saw the bewildered, frightened face of a young boy as a group of bestial English football fans created havoc during the Ireland/England international last week. But my outrage was directed at the parents for taking a child to an event that everyone knows is likely to be full of heaving, sweaty, pent-up men looking only to let rip and draw blood. These views or prejudices are based partly on one personal grievance, partly on what I have gleaned from the media and partly on the irrational fears that grow in the dark recesses of the mind.

The only time I had been to a football match was in 1972. I was taken as an act of atonement by the one I then loved because he had shouted at me for screaming out in agony after I had accidentally poured boiling water on my foot. He was watching football, you see, and it happened to be a key moment. He thought he could show me how much he cared and also why he had behaved so grotesquely by spending money we didn't have on going to see George Best playing for Manchester United. Forgiveness was withheld. Seventeen years later, when casting around for excuses to leave, this event was brought up as an example of how we were never meant for each other.

After all this time, this Saturday I ended up going to the Tottenham vs Southampton match at White Hart Lane - this time with my teenage son who shares his father's ardour for the game and for Spurs. I have often thought that I longed to do this, particularly when I was raising him on my own, to compensate for the loss of a man in the house. I also wanted him to think I was cool, which he did on Saturday, at least until I asked him whether one wore lipstick and earrings to a football match and what words of encouragement I should shout.

But such trite questions covered up deep and genuine anxieties. Some of these were simply feminist rumblings about whether this was encouraging in my son the kind of macho bonding that has generally done the world no good at all. But others, more seriously, were concerned with our safety.

Hardly any Asians play professional football or go to games. The main reason is fear of violence. My poor mother was convinced that my son, who is big, bold and uncompromisingly Asian, would be dead by Saturday evening. She would try to pray for the entire afternoon, she told me. Compared with the numbers of black football players, few black supporters appear at matches. Why should anyone pay good money, only to be surrounded by constant racial abuse?

What is even more disheartening is that until recently, when the Commission on Racial Equality started highlighting the racism endemic in English football, the problem was accepted as an integral and inevitable part of the game.

But could this be only a small part of what actually goes on during fixtures? Rough calculations indicate that more than half a million people attend matches across the country every week. Are people like me guilty of middle- class ignorance which we cover up with an aggravated sense of apprehension?

We were about to find out. Covered up with enough clothes to stop a bullet, over-excited and agitated, I set off with my son Ari. There was nothing volatile about the hordes hurrying towards the stadium, in spite of the foreboding presence of policemen in vans and on horses. Not all fans, I realised to my shame, wore ugly expressions (some looked like beatific pilgrims) or carried beer bottles, though there were a few self-conscious toughies walking backwards in the middle of the road, trying to get themselves noticed.

One man, wearing a black leather cap with earmuffs, was walking with some difficulty and was offered an arm by a young woman in a miniskirt. Her boyfriend walked on, leaving her to it. Friendly blokes approached us - probably because I looked so gormless - to ask if I wanted to sell my ticket. Everyone was relentlessly nice, including the chain-smoking skinny woman at the reception who was talking on two telephones while trying to help me get an extra ticket for our photographer. Her promise came to nothing, but she made me feel good.

We went into the stadium just a minute before the game was due to start. It was a blindingly sunny day, and I was startled by how physically thrilled I was at the vibrant colours and the sight of thousands of people. The roars that went up and down, the exquisite chanting and songs, some with the depth of hymns - the sheer power of that moment gripped me with an intensity that may have had something to do with the fact that it was so unexpected.

We were in the front row - the kind of vulnerable spot where an irritated footballer might try to kick your face in if you said unkind things about his mother. On my left was a boy with no facial hair but a booming voice that resonated in my ear for hours afterwards. Next to my son was a woman who looked like the actress Miranda Richardson at her most desperately vulnerable. A fat man, bald at the top and with the rest of his greasy hair tied in together, was trying to get comfortable in a seat that was too small for his ample girth. He found this unbelievably funny, as did the line of seven giggling, middle-aged Chinese men wearing white Lycra gloves and Spurs scarves sitting behind us.

I could see no other Asians or black people, but there was no antagonism directed towards us. In fact, our section was full of couples and families. A doctor sat with his eight-year-old son, next to an Irish family. Both men said they loved bringing their children to matches and that what happened in Ireland was nothing to do with football and everything to do with politically- motivated extremists. "This can't stop us," said the doctor. "It is something my father did with me, and something I want David to do with his children. It is part of our family life, it is a continuing tradition and we have so few of those in our country."

It is certainly true that you saw all the generations together, sharing something powerful and in a way that you couldn't see anywhere else. The women were young and old, some on their own, most with their men, none looking out of place. This was very different from the possessive male account that Nick Hornby gives in his brilliant book, Fever Pitch.

As the match progressed, the rituals - when you clapped, sang, screamed, moaned, put your head in your hands - began to take shape, though I didn't dare join in because I lacked the ease and real commitment of the others. Alas, my caution went too far. I failed to rise with joy when Spurs scored the first goal; this would, Ari thinks, have rendered me dangerously conspicuous had he not hauled me to my feet to cheer.

The Chinese men were screaming in their own language. Once they did shout "Come on, you Spurs", but it sounded odd. Once or twice they landed blows of pleasure and excitement on our heads. They would have been mortified to realise this, so we did not complain.

There were some disagreeable moments - when a black player on the Southampton side was called a "fucking animal" or when (especially foreign) players were injured and both sides called for their instant deaths. There was also the hostility expressed for the referee every time he did his job. And what was I supposed to say when my son laughed out loud at "jokes" about the sexual practices of female relatives of Southampton players? I am not a sad prude, but did I really want to laugh at these obscenities? The slightest whiff of real trouble and the officials and police moved in to kill it before it got anywhere.

Although I did get involved in the game, and even found myself lusting after the gorgeous legs of the players, I was the outsider in this community where, even as rivals, for a while people shared values, pain and pleasure, and related to one another in a unique and important way. So little else these days allows us to feel that connected.

It also seemed to me that when it works positively, the tribalism that football encourages might be an important counterforce to the empty, fragmented lives that people are forced to lead, devoid of hope and faith in economic well-being, political solutions or religion. English people have also had their sense of identity corrupted by history and political misuse. This must be why so many turn to hating those who are culturally more confident and distinct. And while football may be giving them more scope to vent these nauseating sentiments, it may be providing others with a much-needed sense of group identity. And even the worst displays of xenophobia by English fans do at least show us that, as Mark Twain says, white men are no "less savage than the other savages".

PS: On the way home we had a fantastic cab driver, a football fanatic who told us that he regularly throws racist fans out of his cab: "It's not on. Football is a decent game and it should be for everybody." The day was complete.