More than mere yobs, these young Germans are serious about violence

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"And these people want to organise the World Cup" - screamed the headline above a picture of rampaging football hooligans. That was in Bild, the biggest German tabloid, and it ran last week at the zenith of English antics in Marseilles.

After the violence in Lens on Sunday, the irony that Germany - rivals to stage the World Cup in 2006 - is now tarred with the same brush as England, has so far been lost on the German press. But the smugness is gone, and the void is filled with shame. A shame so strong that there were suggestions yesterday that the country's football officials had offered to withdraw from the World Cup.

For once, the Germans would happily trade places with Britain. The ugly, drunken, English louts whose mock charges filled last week's television screens may seem preferable to the German image now playing to the rest of the world: sober, well-drilled youths in ordinary clothes, united by a common zest for brutality.

If it is true that German hooligans wanted to prove they are tougher than the worst England can throw at them, then they are one nil up. Their first victim, a French policeman named Daniel Nivel, is fighting for his life. When they chose to act, they are the best organised and most violent football hooligans in Western Europe.

According to official estimates, some 650 "category C" hooligans have made it to France from Germany. These are the people classified as "prone to violence". By contrast, there were only an estimated 30 to 50 category C English soccer thugs involved in the recent violence in Marseilles.

The French authorities appear to have been taken by surprise by the number of German hooligans and their organisational skills. It is unclear whether the German police underestimated the scale of the problem or if the French failed to act on information. All the big German clubs have their own category C fans, usually with their own enclosures. They identify themselves with militaristic titles, such as the Eagle Front of Hamburg and Dortmund's Borussenfront [Prussian Front]. These gangs do not wear club scarves or display any other token of allegiance. Nor do they wrap themselves in the German flag.

The violent fraternities communicate with each other by mobile phones, faxes and via Internet pages. Members of two gangs could be bashing one another on the terraces one Saturday, only to be united against a foreign enemy the following week. Foreign outings are often planned months in advance. Preparations for the World Cup, it was reported yesterday, had begun soon after Euro 96.

Category C hooligans are mostly urban, and come from all walks of life. "They have nothing to do with any underclass," said Rolf Marewski, a social worker in charge of a project aimed at pacifying Dortmund fans. "They feel unrecognised by society, are looking to establish their identity, and want to be regarded as equals."

Only a minority of these hardcore hooligans are unemployed, but all are burdened with an inferiority complex that compels them to do something that people will notice. There is the thrill of the chase. "They are fascinated with violence," Mr Marewski said.

Unlike the English thugs, alcohol is the not the main motivating factor behind the German violence, according to British police intelligence. They believe that few of the attacks were fuelled by drink; rather they are driven by political activism and "the thrill of the fight".

Intelligence also suggests that the German hooligans are far better organised, pre-plan travel and orchestrate "spontaneous" riots. Fun for them involves bashing like-minded people in the head at weekends. When there are no matches, rival gangs stage wars at motorway service stations. There are an estimated 3,000 of them searching for a good scrap.

In appearance, they look similar to shaven-headed neo-Nazi youths, though social workers disagree about the importance of ideology to football hooligans. Some 20 per cent of category C fans are estimated to harbour racist attitudes, another 20 per cent are apolitical, and the rest support one of the mainstream democratic parties.

Neo-Nazi groups have tried for many years to infiltrate the hooligan gangs, but with mixed results.

"We have been noticing for two or three years that right-wing extremists have strengthened their influence on football fans," Gunter Pilz, a football sociologist, was quoted as saying yesterday.

Searchlight, the anti-Facist magazine, said that German skinheads had connections with hooligans in other countries, particularly those belonging to the British Blood and Honour gang and the Hammer Skins - so-called for using hammers on their victims.

Mr Marewski, who has been working with Dortmund fans for 10 years, disagrees. He says there is no evidence that hooligans are becoming politicised. But raising Nazi salutes and shouting racist slogans is cool, irrespective of political affiliations. And they are all looking forward to meeting their English friends.