We were provoked, said the fans. But to them the sound of a foreign language is provocation

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a street off the elegant Grand Place in Brussels, two sharply contrasting musical accompaniments were being offered for what would be the start of 36 hours of violence and chaos spread across two cities.

In a street off the elegant Grand Place in Brussels, two sharply contrasting musical accompaniments were being offered for what would be the start of 36 hours of violence and chaos spread across two cities.

On one side of the cobbles, an earnest young busker was entertaining two dozen passers-by with his version of the Crowded House song, "Don't Dream it's Over". At the same time, less than 40 yards away on the other side of the street, a horde of England supporters in football shirts had taken over the tables outside a café. They too were singing and they too were drawing the attention of those walking past.

But in regard to this group, however, the looks from onlookers on Friday evening were of horror rather than appreciation: no one seemed impressed by the red and white nylon-clad men's rendition of the yobs' anthem "No Surrender to the IRA".

Within an hour the songs would have faded and this popular corner of the Belgian capital would be screaming with the sirens of emergency vehicles as police, who had moved in to round up and arrest scores of rioting England supporters, fired tear gas. There are no prizes for guessing it was not the young busker who would be led away in handcuffs.

That was simply the beginning. Yesterday, as England celebrated Saturday night's historic footballing victory over Germany, it was confirmed that at least 820 fans had been arrested and detained by Belgian authorities since Friday. And while, yesterday morning, a flower market was held in Charleroi's main square, just a few hours earlier it had been the location of a rare event -- the use of water cannon on supporters of the English national side by a foreign authority.

The inquest that began yesterday into the weekend of trouble threw up various theories as to the precise cause of the disturbances. Many England supporters in Brussels on Friday claimed that they were merely protecting themselves against Belgian gangs of North African and Turkish origin.

"There are gangs of Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, Turks and they don't like us. They want to kill us, they have knives," one England supporter said.

Another fan, Adrian Woodward, from Essex, said: "People are saying this was a riot but there was only a minority of people involved."

Eyewitness accounts of North Africans seriously assaulting at least one England supporter in Brussels, backed up by a statement from the Belgian authorities, would suggest that there was a fair degree of provocation.

Likewise reports from Charleroi - where 500 fans, of which 350 were English, were arrested on Saturday, suggest that a minority of German supporters had also been looking for trouble. Most of the English arrests were for minor matters such as not having identity documents with them, and the majority have been released.

The Football Supporters' Association (FSA) yesterday criticised the police for what they said was a heavy-handed approach, claiming that as a consequence of their "get tough" approach some fans had been arrested for simply not having a ticket.

An FSA co-ordinator, Kevin Miles, said the policing was very different to that adopted by the Dutch when England had played their first match in the championship.

"The Dutch police had a high-profile, low-friction approach which worked extremely well and brought out the best in the English fans," he said. "Here, on the day before the game, the policing was virtually non-existent until it was too late. Then after one or two problems had developed, the policing became heavy-handed and indiscriminate. There can be few methods of policing less precise than firing tear gas into a crowded pub and arresting everyone who emerges."

But the Belgian police were making no apologies. Having warned that they would be firm with troublemakers, they said they had no reason to change their approach for England's encounter with Romania tomorrow in the same venue. A Charleroi police spokesman, Major Michel Rompen, said: "We always said that we would be tough with hooligans and act quickly as soon as there were any problems.

"We did that but in a calm and controlled manner. We did not over-react. We did use water cannons but sparingly. It will be the same on Tuesday."

The key to the Belgians' tactics appears to be speed. On Friday night in Brussels - having already shown their intentions earlier in the tournament when violence broke out involving Belgian fans - police moved rapidly to deal with troublemakers. So-called "snatch squads" were employed to arrest the ring leaders.

A spokesman for the British National Criminal Intelligence Service, which has been working with the Dutch and Belgian police and providing them with information on known hooligans, said senior Belgian officers were "exasperated" at the way the English had behaved. He said he supported this view.

"You hear all these stories, people saying, 'We were just having a drink', 'The police were too hard,' and it is all simply rubbish.

"The bottom line is that there were a lot of young men aged between 18 and 30 who get drunk and like to cause trouble.

"They get caught up in the tribalism and get drawn into, or else start, widespread violence. They talk about provocation but to these people someone speaking German is considered provocation. We must not get this out of proportion - it's still a minority, but it is a significant minority.

"The police always said that they'd be tough. They certainly were. This whingeing mob cannot say they were not told."

Last night, an England team, freshly buoyed by victory over their old rivals, were enjoying a barbecue at their base in the Belgian town of Spa.

The people of Belgium, meanwhile, hope that those England supporters involved in the 36 hours of violence that soured that victory will not be repeating their performance at tomorrow's match.