Charleroi puts its trust in goodwill and 3,000 police

A small, faded Belgian city living on former glories fills up with fans for England's make-or-break game with Germany
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The Independent Online

If appointments with destiny always required an epic backdrop, England's footballers would tonight not be taking on Germany in Charleroi.

If appointments with destiny always required an epic backdrop, England's footballers would tonight not be taking on Germany in Charleroi.

There is little doubt that this small city in southern Belgium once bore an air of quiet grandeur. In the central square, where fountains shoot jets of water over a ring of Euro 2000 footballs, the imposing town hall, for instance, is a reminder of better, more illustrious times.

"This was built in the 1930s when the town was rich," sighed a young official as he led the way up a marble stairwell, sounding like some gnarled retainer in a Mervyn Peake novel.

But the industries that once made Charleroi wealthy - coal, steel and glass - now lie all but silent. The last mine closed in 1984, unemployment stands at 20 per cent, investment is limited, locals mutter darkly about a large immigrant population and beneath grey afternoon skies the city seems drab and melancholy.

But today none of that will matter. By this afternoon, more than 30,000 English football fans will have descended upon Charleroi for a match that has taken on an importance that not only lovers of the beautiful game can appreciate.

In practical terms it is a simple affair. After their disastrous opening encounter with Portugal last Monday, which they lost 3-2, England's players have to win tonight if they are to have any real hope of proceeding into the quarter-finals of Euro 2000. The coach, Kevin Keegan, points out that, depending on how other teams in the group fare, England could still get through with a draw against Germany and a victory in their final first round match against Romania.

Mathematically Keegan is correct. But observers of the England team at Spa say there is a realisation among the players that to keep control of their progress - and not rely on the outcome of other games - they have to win. "There is no doubt that their confidence has taken a battering after their defeat," said one. "But I think there is also a feeling among the players that it is time to beat Germany."

And therein lies the essence of what makes tonight's encounter more than just an important football match. As any England fan will tell you - from the loud-mouthed yob to the Nick Hornby-reading, football-is-fashion poseur - tonight is all about history. Xenophobia aside, tonight is about putting right the failures of the past.

England have not beaten Germany in a competitive game for 34 years. Over the years there have been "friendlies" which England have been happy enough to win, but in tournaments - the games that count - the team's record against Germany has been a catalogue of failure. "Every match against Germany seems to be important because of the rivalry," said Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters' Association (FSA). "But because of what happened earlier this week, victory has become vital."

The Prime Minister has offered his support for tonight's match. He will watch the game from Downing Street after the Trooping the Colour ceremony. "It's an important game and he is right behind the team," said a spokesman.

In some ways Charleroi is a perfect venue for what will no doubt be a hard-fought encounter. Founded in 1666 when the Spanish army built a fortress overlooking the Sambre valley, the town was initially named Charleroy in honour of Spain's infant king, Charles II. Since then it has been a constant battlefield: Napoleon stayed here two days before his defeat at nearby Waterloo - the 185th anniversary of the battle is, coincidentally, tomorrow - and the horrors of war were again visited on the city during the First World War.

Off the pitch the city is also preparing for potential conflict. Although it considered introducing an alcohol ban for the day, it decided against it, concluding that "the people of Charleroi like to party and they want there to be a party".

Instead, while England and German fans will be able to spend the 12 hours before the game drinking super-strength beer, served in plastic glasses, the people of Charleroi will put their trust in the 3,000 police, including 120 on horseback, who will be on duty and the threat of "cages" in which offenders will be incarcerated should the cells become full. Thirteen water cannons and two police helicopters will be on standby.

Charleroi's large Turkish community has told police it will not be causing problems with English fans though ill-feeling persists between supporters of the two countries following the murder of two Leeds fans in Istanbul before the Uefa Cup semi-final first leg.

And then there is the concern over Charleroi's vertiginous football stadium. Question marks have been raised over its safety.

"It is very important for us to show that Charleroi can stage a tournament," said the city's commissar of police, Francine Bidot. "But is also important [that there is no trouble] for England's bid to host the 2006 World Cup."

Initially the city was fearful of the invasion of England supporters. When the mayor, Jacques Van Gompel, learnt of the draw he said he was "dreading" 17 June. Now he has apparently changed his mind. "Euro 2000 is not just about three football games," said Patrick Henseval, a spokesman for the mayor's office. He said the authority was using the tournament to showcase the city's potential for investment. "We hope everything we can organise helps work against the unemployment but we have no magic potion."

It is easy to understand why Charleroi's bars are opting to stay open. The match between Yugoslavia and Slovenia earlier this week provided their biggest ever takings and they expect today to do even better.

"The city has been making a lot of effort to make people welcome," said Declan, the manager of the Irish Times pub. "They want the town to be seen as an up-and-coming place."

And among the ordinary townsfolk, there is as much anticipation as there is anxiety. Behind the city's Le Mambourg municipal stadium where the newly enlarged stands tower above residential flats, Didier Decugper, an airforce officer, said: "I don't think people feel there will be problems - they know England want to host the next World Cup."

By way of a friendly build-up to tonight's game, the FSA yesterday organised a game between English and German fans. By all accounts the game was a good-natured affair that augered well for the match between the two real teams.

Except, that is, in one crucial respect: the Germans won 5-4. Tonight, three-and-a-half decades since they last savoured such a victory, England will try to put things right.