Euro 2000 braced for the wired-up hooligan

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The Independent Online

The e-mail from one England thug to others heading for Euro 2000 last night was simple: "Eurostar... put on suit for the journey over... no bother."

The e-mail from one England thug to others heading for Euro 2000 last night was simple: "Eurostar... put on suit for the journey over... no bother."

On hooligan websites, other England followers, who knew their names had been passed by police to Dutch and Belgian officials, were last night busy arranging coach travel, intending to slip through border crossings with other fans.

As the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, met the Dutch and Belgian ambassadors yesterday to discuss the plans for preventing violence at next week's European football championships, there was an increased sense that violence at the tournament was inevitable.

And while Mr Straw was warning that hooligans would be dealt with by a "firm hand", the president of the international football body, FIFA, Sepp Blatter, was urging Euro 2000 organisers to consider moving England's game with Germany to a safer stadium.

Yesterday Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, seized on the anxiety to accuse the Government of not doing enough to head off violence. Mr Straw blamed Conservative backbenchers for blocking legislation last year aimed at preventing suspected hooligans from travelling overseas.

The National Criminal Intelligence Service, which monitors football violence in England and Wales, has files on 5,000 hooligans, of which 500 are rated as hardcore "Category C" organisers. But only 23 are subject to new International Banning Orders requiring them to hand in their passports during the tournament.

A further 76 are on older Restriction Orders, which means they must report to any police station at kick-off times, but are allowed to keep their passports and thus go abroad.

Some 416 thugs who have been made the subject of Domestic Banning Orders, preventing them from attending stadiums in England and Wales, have had their names forwarded to Dutch and Belgian authorities along with more than 300 other known troublemakers. If detected, they could be turned back.

But as hooligans exchanged travel tips yesterday over the internet - where gangs like the Chelsea Headhunters and the Leicester City Baby Squad have official sites - it appeared the thugs were unstoppable. Martin King, a veteran member of the Chelsea firm, said yesterday: "There will definitely be trouble. Every mob will be there and not just those from the big clubs but from all the little towns around the country."

Mr King is convinced the recent murder of two Leeds United fans in Istanbul, closely followed by clashes between Arsenal fans and followers of the Turkish side Galatasary in Copenhagen, have increased the stakes among rival thugs.

He said: "Everybody will be jumping on the bandwagon now. A lot of people will just get in the car and go over on the day of a game." Mr King, who is amazed Britain has not followed Germany's lead in holding the passports of known hooligans, believes only hardline policing will keep violence to a minimum. He said: "I went to Bruges with Chelsea and they were turning away boatloads of people. They just arrested everyone. Whether they will use those kind of tactics I don't know but that's the only way they will restrict trouble."

The Dutch and Belgian police have been liaising with their English counterparts after the success in limiting violence at the Euro 96 tournament in England. Those suspected of causing or planning trouble can be detained for up to 12 hours and fans will be arrested for not carrying passports and drinking in the streets.

But with more than 40,000 English fans expected in the Low Countries ahead of Euro 2000, along with hundreds of thousands arriving from other countries, officials will have enormous problems in weeding out the thugs. Despite the organised criminality of the English gangs, police are not expecting large-scale coordinated attacks. Most hooligans are expected to arrive by car, using quiet border crossings from France and Germany.

They are likely to head to Amsterdam and Brussels, where there is a high chance of violence with local gangs or Turkish communities ahead of England's opening game in Eindhoven next Monday.

John Williams, the director of Leicester University's Centre for Football Research, said: "Violence has often occurred near the beginning of a tournament when people are hyped and excited. It could start with a small group who have stopped off somewhere along the way."

With England's application to host the 2006 World Cup pending, the English fans face the most crucial test of character. While 1,000 or so veteran thugs may be hell-bent on violence, thousands of others - many of them impressionable younger supporters - are in what Mr Williams describes as a "grey area".

The Scottish fans have their tartan and the Dutch have orange. But the young England supporters have inherited only an international reputation for fighting. Amid the excitement of attending what Mr Williams called "the event of the summer", they are in danger of being sucked into trouble.

The laddish Fat Les version of Jerusalem has been embraced as England's anthem in the hope that it will help provide young male fans with an attractive and positive alternative to hooliganism.

Mark Perryman, spokesman for the official Members' Club of England, said: "What we are trying to do is distance the passion and commitment from the violence. People have got to decide which is more important. The football or the fighting?"