Organised gangs of football hooligans have formed a national criminal syndicate dealing in drugs, counterfeit designer clothing and forged currency, police have discovered.
The development is an indication of the increasing sophistication of English football thugs who, police say, have evolved from the large hooligan mobs of the Eighties into tightly knit groups with business and criminal interests.
The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will launch a telephone hotline today for identifying England followers who are planning trouble at the European championships in June in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), which is setting up the hotline, believes the proximity of the tournament will enable large numbers of hardcore hooligans to travel to games in small groups on the day of the matches. Many of the most dedicated thugs are middle-aged, with a 25-year history of violence.
Through the exchange of mobile telephone numbers and e-mail addresses for the purpose of organising violence, the gangs have forged social and business contacts away from football, which have been further developed at England matches. Other known thugs have used their status as hooligans to build legitimate business enterprises. Police sources said Chelsea's Headhunters gang is now "in business" with Arsenal's Gooners.
The Inter City Firm, attached to West Ham United, is heavily involved in the underground dance music scene with links to door security, pirate radio and independent record companies.
Detectives have also uncovered extensive hooligan networks dealing in counterfeit versions of designer clothing brands favoured by the gangs, including Stone Island, Rockport, Ralph Lauren and Timberland. Other hardcore thugs hatched a plan to produce thousands of replica football shirts in Thailand and distribute them at more than a dozen English clubs via the hooligan network.
In another scam, known hooligans linked to Manchester United and Mansfield Town conspired to produce thousands of pounds in counterfeit currency, which was distributed to England fans travelling to international games abroad.
Although hooliganism is widely believed to have almost disappeared from the English game, the organised "firms" that emerged in the Seventies and Eighties continue to be active.
Gangs that once could draw up to 2,000 young fans have given way to smaller groups of 50 or 100 experienced hooligans, who are all known to each other and regard would-be recruits with suspicion.
A source at the NCIS football intelligence section said: "What you have to understand is that since the anti-hooligan trials of the Eighties these gangs have been very careful. They won't let new people in. But those that are in, it's like the Freemasons, they are in for life."
Martin King, author of Hoolifan and associated with the Chelsea firm for nearly 30 years, said: "Some of them are in their late forties and early fifties. Some are legitimate and successful businessmen but they will still turn out because it's in their blood and they will never fully give it up."
Because only dedicated hooligans are involved, the planned violence - which typically takes place away from the stadium and often not on match day - is more vicious than ever.
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