Police believe that opposing supporters directing abuse at the player, whom some blame for England's elimination from the World Cup, could trigger violence at Manchester United games in the new football season, which begins this weekend.
The Independent has learnt that the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) has already received intelligence that hooligan gangs linked to Arsenal and Manchester United are planning violent clashes this weekend as the teams meet at Wembley for the Charity Shield, the traditional opening fixture. Although the planned violence is likely to occur away from the ground, police fear the Beckham factor could also spark clashes inside the stadium on Sunday. Bryan Drew, head of strategic and specialist intelligence at NCIS, said: "The Beckham factor could provide a trigger. It depends on how the Man Utd supporters react to try and defend him."
Police are also concerned about United's early-season league fixtures - particularly the away game at West Ham later this month, and at home to Liverpool next month.
Mr Drew issued his warning as NCIS released figures showing that arrest rates at league matches in England and Wales had fallen by nearly 15 per cent to their lowest level on record. In the Premiership, the number of arrests has fallen to 13 per 100,000. The decrease is linked to the success of intelligence-led policing and closed-circuit television, as well as all-seater stadiums and increased numbers of middle-class supporters.
However, the figures also revealed that while arrests for drunkenness and rowdiness had decreased, arrests for violent offences had risen - with more instances of affray, assault, violent disorder, running on the pitch, racial and indecent chanting, and throwing missiles.
Yesterday, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, announced a change in the law to allow stiffer sentences to be given to known hooligans who abuse restriction orders designed to prevent them attending matches. The maximum penalty for breaching such orders has been raised from one month's jail and a pounds 1,000 fine to six months' jail and a pounds 5,000 fine.
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