Chelsea fans protest their treatment in vain

RETREAT FROM BRUGES: Hosed, detained and deported, aggrieved travellers trail home. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
Chelsea followers who returned from the Cup-Winners' Cup match in Bruges protesting against indiscriminate and over-zealous police action found their complaints brushed aside on both sides of the Channel yesterday.

An unrepentant Johan van der Lanotte, the Belgian Minister of Internal Affairs, acknowledged that the security operation in and around the Olympiastadion - which included the use of water-cannons and a charge by mounted police against home fans - had been "heavy-handed". But he suggested it was "bad luck" if innocent supporters were among the 354 people detained overnight and deported.

"We had one big warning from television of recent incidents of violence at football in Britain," Mr van der Lanotte explained. "When I see what's happened in other countries, I think we had a big success and only little difficulties."

This view, clearly influenced by the transgressions of England fans in Dublin last month, was endorsed by the Football Association and Chelsea. However, events in Bruges exposed divisions between Britain's two main supporters' organisations.

Several Chelsea followers claimed they were arbitrarily picked off the streets of Bruges. Others alleged they were herded into a disused warehouse and detained for seven hours while the game was in progress. Many, brandishing hotel-room keys, said they were not allowed to collect cars, passports or luggage.

Some 2,100 fans travelled to the game by official transport organised by Chelsea. Colin Hutchinson, the club's managing director, said Club Bruges were "full of praise" for their behaviour. "Our 50 coaches were on their way home by the time any trouble occurred," he said.

Belgian police had decided to concentrate their energies on "unofficial" fans - those without tickets or in possession of forgeries. Backing the strategy, the FA spokesman, Mike Parry, claimed 90 per cent of those rounded up did not have tickets.

Parry said: "They were told not to travel. They should heed our advice and leave the way clear for official fans, who have done a great deal of good for our country. While the FA is in no way complacent about the spectre of hooligansim, we're very pleased by the way things went."

He also praised the liaison between the National Football Intelligence Unit in England and its Belgian counterparts: "The Bruges police have told us the information they received was first-class."

Matt Pilkington, 25, of south London, was among the Chelsea fans who did not see a ball kicked. "I'd parked my car and booked into the hotel, and the next thing I knew I was jumped on by police with dogs," he said on arriving at Ramsgate from Ostend. "I showed my ticket and they said it was forged. I was taken to this warehouse, which was freezing cold, and with nothing to eat or drink.

"We were treated like animals, packed in tight. There were hundreds of us, including girls and a man of 70. After a couple of hours we were shouting at them to let us out. They turned the water-cannon on us."

The Mayor of Bruges, Patrick Moenaert, denied the building had been used as a prison, saying: "It was not like home, but it was quite comfortable." He believed police tactics were vindicated by the attitude of some of the visiting fans, some of whom he understood to have come from Germany and the Netherlands.

He added: "This was a very dangerous situation. They used all kinds of tricks to get tickets, even buying them in Antwerp. There was a feeling of fear among the people of Bruges. They were seeing Nazi salutes, and that's not nice. Our police acted correctly and firmly, using only necessary force."

A police spokesman, defending the deployment of 550 officers, said they had confiscated "calling cards" bearing slogans such as "Chelsea Headhunters: No surrender" and "FC Utrecht: Nightmare in Holland". Asked whether the authorities over-reacted, he said: "This was an enormous situation and our response to it was perfectly normal.

"The violence was expected, especially when we knew we were going to be confronted by one of the top five hooligan sides in Europe. We're pleased with how it went - the game was saved because of our advance measures."

The chairman of the National Federation of Supporters' Clubs, Tony Kershaw, called for troublemakers to be "rooted out". Yet he opposed a ban on foreign travel, fearing it would lead to "even more mayhem".

"The nutters would travel anyway and pick up tickets easily, as they did when England played in Poland," Kershaw said. "It's impossible to stop these people travelling unless we get convictions against them in England. That's the priority. The courts have been too lenient - we need to come down hard on them because all fans are tarred with the same brush."

Swimming against the cross-Channel tide, Steve Beauchamp, of the Football Supporters' Association, denounced "a catalogue of aggression and incompetence" by the Belgian police, whom he felt had failed to distinguish between hooligans and genuine fans.

"Supporters had tickets confiscated and ripped up, while fans aged 16 to 60 were locked up without committing any offence," Beauchamp said. "John Major was quick enough to praise the police. Now that he has no excuse for not knowing the facts, he should stand up for British citizens whose civil liberties have been trodden on while travelling under the protection of a British passport."

And he warned: "If the authorities here endorse such policing methods, then the tactics in evidence in Bruges will become the norm."

Only two Chelsea fans were arrested, though both were released without charge. One, held in connection with a stabbing, was allowed to leave after police said they had insufficient evidence. The 14-year-old Belgian wounded in the incident was not seriously hurt.