Football: English fans in Rome

Aftermath of Italy v England game
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The Independent Online
I was there, it was ghastly

It began good-humouredly enough, with the Football Association brass band blasting out "Here We Go, Here We Go" on the Spanish Steps and a group of Italian fans trying to drown them out with a gusty rendition of their national anthem.

But that was Friday evening. By yesterday lunchtime, when the bulk of the English football fans left, Rome was trembling with fear as it counted its injured and cleared up the debris carpeting its streets and piazzas.

For a mercifully short weekend, the Eternal City stood aghast as groups of unruly men chugged back beer after beer, hurled glasses and bottles in all directions, stripped down to their (mostly) unsightly, sweaty waists and sang football chants to a bewildered audience.

The menace of violence was never far from the surface, and it was not just the hard core of 70-odd supporters specifically labelled as hooligans that looked like they might throw a punch as soon as look at you. The word "Italians" was barely uttered without the epithet "fucking" chucked in before it.

By Saturday afternoon, owners of the fancy boutiques of the area around Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps were forced to closefor fear of an impending rampage. On Via del Corso, Rome's answer to Oxford Street, a group of English fans threw bottles and rocks at riot policemen.

At this point, Italy's own contingent of fascists and bootboys weighed in. At around 5 o'clock, full-blown street battles broke out, fought with bottles and cobblestones lifted from a nearby roadworks site. The windows of one bar were smashed in.

After the match, the main thoroughfares were patrolled by police cars with sirens blaring, and the search for signs of trouble did not let up even after the first eight charter flights had taken several hundred fans home. One English fan was stabbed overnight in a well-heeled residential quarter - but that, on this craziest of weekends, seemed like a minor incident after all the rest.

- Andrew Gumbel

So was I, and it wasn't

At the end of this pulsating, emotionally draining match, something bizarre happened. The nattily dressed Italian contingent in front of us turned round to applaud us. They were not taking the mickey, but exhibiting a concept thought to have deserted football with the rattle: sportsmanship.

Later on, two of our party were searching in vain for a cab as a private car pulled up. When they told the Italian driver they needed to get to the airport, 30 kilometres away, he simply said, "hop in, I'll take you there". At the airport, he refused to accept any money because he liked the English.

This is entirely consistent with a day which for me was much more about harmony than hoolies. My impression was that this Italian Job was for the vast majority of English fans nothing more sinister than good old- fashioned fun.

Timothy Bell, a computer salesman from Camberley, bore this out. In a bar before the game, he revealed that "the Italians have been very chatty. We've felt no grievances or had any adverse comments".

Frank Skinner, over with David Baddiel to launch their new video, More Unseen Fantasy Football, reckoned that the feelgood factor partly stemmed from Euro 96, which "gave the feeling that maybe the door on football hooliganism had been closed. It was OK for normal nice people to go to football".The good humour was carried over into the stadium where Delia Smith and Ernest Saunders rubbed shoulders with cut-outs of Ginger Spice. People had clearly come to party.

The trouble between English fans and Italian police appeared to be forgotten by the second half when, using the perspex barriers, the English supporters drowned out their hosts with a 10-minute version of theme from The Dam Busters.

Even as we were marched back into the city, the sound of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" rang out. It was a fitting coda to a very warm Roman holiday.

-James Rampton