Norfolk town where football is excuse for attacks on Portuguese

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The Independent Online

The market square in Thetford in Norfolk, appears at first glance just like the centre of dozens of other small rural towns and the Red Lion a typical traditional pub, has its steps opening on to the bustle of shoppers and traders. All seems normal. Except, of course, for the Portuguese flag flying over the pub door and the handwritten menu of dishes such as caldo verdo pinned up behind the bar.

The market square in Thetford in Norfolk, appears at first glance just like the centre of dozens of other small rural towns and the Red Lion a typical traditional pub, has its steps opening on to the bustle of shoppers and traders. All seems normal. Except, of course, for the Portuguese flag flying over the pub door and the handwritten menu of dishes such as caldo verdo pinned up behind the bar.

The one other thing that marks out this particular pub out are its broken and boarded up windows, a legacy of the violent siege by about 300 drunken yobs that the occupants of the Red Lion endured late last Thursday after their country's defeat of England in Euro 2004.

Tonight, as the local Portuguese gather again at the pub which has become a focal point for their community to cheer their team in the semi-final against Holland, the atmosphere among them is subdued and fearful.

Many may stay away, fearing a repetition of last week's events. Minutes after the end of the match, the cheers of the 120 or so inside, including several English people, turned to screams of terror when the mob, many wearing English colours, began throwing stones and bricks at the windows.

"We were all terrified," said Jose Cunca, who came from Porto two years ago and is one of the pub's three joint owners. "There were woman and children here and they were all very frightened. They tried to set fire to my car and break in through the back door - who knows what would have happened if they had succeeded?''

It took the police, who, warned of anti-Portuguese violence in several places had spread their resources, more than an hour before they had enough officers to disperse the crowd. Fifteen were arrested and later released, but the ringleaders escaped. Mr Cunca believes the violence was premeditated and many of those responsible came from outside the town - something the police agree may turn out to be true.

In the meantime, violence is being seen as a consequence of tensions since the influx of Portuguese began just over five years ago, when the local food processing industries turned to the country as a ready source of cheap labour - finding East Anglians no longer willing to accept the work, although the common misconception is they have taken their jobs.

There are now about 5,000 Portuguese in Thetford - where as well as the Red Lion there are two Portuguese delicatessens, another restaurant and a hairdresser - and an estimated 25,000 scattered throughout Norfolk. Together with the influx of Londoners seeking a better quality of life, it has put a strain in public services, schools and hospitals in a usually sparsely populated area.

The events of last Thursday bore out the recent warning of Giles Smith, a local GP, who said the strain on the local infrastructure was "intolerable" and that the resentment in the town could lead to "tribal war''. However, until last week, racist behaviour has been limited, apart from one attack on two Portuguese men last year, for which nine people were jailed.

"I'm not a racist," said one man a few yards from the Red Lion, to which he gesticulates with his heavily tattooed arms: "But these fuckin' people come over and they get all the houses and their kids are in the schools and they've got our jobs and they don't want us in their cafés. There's too many of them.'' He adds: "I didn't come down 'ere on Thursday night, cause I'd 'av been banged up by now. I'd 'av got stuck in. You can just call me the tattooed man.''

His accent is more East End than East Anglia, a legacy of when the town was a London overflow and led to housing estates which, in the words of one policeman, feel more like Bermondsey than Norfolk.

Back at the Red Lion, the Portuguese struggle to comprehend. Fatima Rodriguez, 43, who works in a local bacon factory said: "It's their parents, their educationthat's responsible. All they want to do is go out and get drunk and fight. In Portugal, we go out to get drunk and have fun and dance.''

The pub received more than 50 letters, expressing outrage and condemning those responsible. Mr Cunca said: "Please, just print that I really want to thank everybody so much who wrote to us. We know this is a minority. We like England. We have English friends and customers and I know this is just the minority. I know not all English people are bad.''