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England fans outraged by `brutal Italians'

Football may have become the fashionable talk of middle-class dinner parties, but as fans who travelled to England's World Cup qualifier in Rome found out the world still believes that the English only go to games to fight. Ian Burrell reports

Despite the spectacular successes of the football authorities and police in improving safety levels in and around our soccer stadia, football hooliganism is seen as an inherently English trait. Like afternoon tea, soccer violence has diminishing relevance here but no one from overseas seems to have noticed.

It was dubbed the "English disease" during the 1980s - when every foreign venture by an English team seemed to be accompanied by appalling acts of violence by their followers - and the name is now indelible.

At first glance, the ugly clashes between England supporters and Italian police in the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday seemed as familiar and disgraceful as those of old.

Yet whereas once politicians and football chiefs were queuing up to condemn fans and call for the toughest of punishments, yesterday there were words of sympathy.

David Mellor, former minister and head of the Government's Football Task Force, accused the Italian police of a "gross over-response" and said "that was not the behaviour of a civilised police force".

He added: "I think the Italians should be ashamed of themselves for the manner in which they reacted."

Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, was also concerned. "I have spoken to friends of mine this morning who were out there and they said it was terrible. From what they have told me some of the fans were provoked by police," he said.

Yet in Italy the view was diametrically opposite. The Rome-based newspaper Il Messaggero observed: "They gave themselves up to an orgy of beer, their own sweat and the tears of others."

The newspaper noted that pre-match violence broke out at "the time for tea", commenting: "Naked torsos, strong tattoos. Gorilla-style actions near the Spanish Steps."

Hooliganism is now a weekly occurrence at grounds throughout continental Europe. The recent fixture between Germany and Poland was the scene of some of the most brutal and sustained spectator violence ever seen at an international.

Organised fights between gangs that follow Dutch clubs now far exceed anything seen in Britain. And the Stadio Olimpico itself has witnessed blazing fires and running battles between the rival supporters of Roma and Lazio.

Yet the notion that football thuggery is quintessentially English persists.

A decision by British police to issue a very public pre-match warning that 700 English hooligans were on their way to Rome did not help. Mr Mellor was soon ringing alarm bells about the frame of mind of the Italian police and the way they were planning to crack down on the English.

Undoubtedly there was a small trouble-making element among the English contingent - and 23 were arrested - but the nature of the national team's support has altered radically in recent years along with the change in the sport's image at home.

Many of those at Saturday's game were guests on corporate packages.

Julie O'Malley, 23, and Daljit Khaira, 27, had paid pounds 450 each and were part of a hospitality treat for employees at the London electronics company CHS.

Both women were at their first football match and vowed never to go again. Ms O'Malley said she was part of a group who were charged by police. "About 1,000 people came running and I was literally being trampled. I think I would have died if my friend had not pulled me on to a wall."

Jim Tyrrell, a 36-year-old marketing manager from London, added: "It was extremely brutal. The police were clearly terrified and had been wound up to the point where they were treating us as if we were all hooligans.

"There were 20 to 30 English fans causing trouble and they should have sorted those out. We were treated like criminals for 24 hours. It was disgusting."

As the Football Association announced an inquiry into the ticketing arrangements it appeared that the trigger for the violence was the decision to direct a section of the England support to part of the ground where there was little segregation from the home support. Fans say they were pelted with missiles and when some retaliated, the police charged the visiting supporters.

Bryan Harris, 63-year-old sales manager for a communications company, said: "The police were just hitting out indiscriminately. We were shouting for them to stop but it was relentless."

Innocent victims many may have been, and one English fan was in hospital with a stab wound yesterday. But outside Britain the cries of innocence are likely to go unheard. Meanwhile the images of violence shown around the world - most significantly to the French police officers who will patrol next summer's World Cup games - will reinforce the hooligan stereotype.