Patriots, scoundrels and the peril of inertia

SOME day soon - it could be today - the Government will awaken at last to the sombre fact that the football hooligan problem they are hopelessly faffing around with is far more serious than they think and that what they are up against is not a bunch of hot-heads marinated in lager but a dedicated regiment of volunteers who refuse to allow the fact that there isn't a war on to prevent them from fighting for their country.

A number of sports writers have been pointing out the gravity of this situation for years but who takes notice of us who labour away atpolemics for a living? A fellow politician would be more likely to be heeded but, unfortunately, not when the MP concerned is the maverick Tory Alan Clark.

His theory that last week's battle of Marseilles had its roots in the playing fields of Eton has been soundly rubbished and he was further denounced as a one-man barmy army for suggesting that the hooligans who carried the Union Jack into action in the tear-gassed streets of the Old Port district should not be blamed for responding to the irresistible summons of an Englishman's destiny.

Actually, he didn't put it as succinctly as that but thus was the drift of his words on Radio 4's Today programme. He maintained that the fans were victims of the widespread prejudice against the English abroad and, after comparing football violence with that displayed in the Eton Wall game, said that it was in their nature to be agressive and confrontational.

"It is a compliment to the English martial spirit I suppose. But they really haven't got a chance, these guys, because everyone is out to get them," he said.

Not being in possession of an English nature, I can't speak with any authority on the evils latent within that haughty bearing but although much of what Clark said was justifiably scoffed at I wouldn't dismiss his rantings as utter tosh. Maybe, as an archetypal Englishman, he has recognised something that most of his countrymen have overlooked.

Clark may be a serial purveyor of eccentric ideas but he's the first politician to put forward the notion that the louts are marching to a drum that only true patriots can hear. The lads would have been delighted to read such words. At last, someone in authority is prepared to salute them as the heroes they really are.

That is precisely how they regard themselves and the fact that they have run rings around the pathetic attempts to prevent them causing havoc in France only adds to the thrill they are experiencing. There is no doubt that over the past 30 years or so, outbreaks of English hooliganism have acquired a ritualistic conformity that is not totally out of the national character. It seems ludicrous to excuse their excesses on the grounds that they are prompted by patriotic emotions beyond their control but their behaviour has long fallen into a pattern that makes their presence a danger wherever they gather.

The Home Secretary had the decency to apologise to France and is attempting to rush in stricter, though hardly draconian, punishments. Even more futile, the Prime Minister is demanding that employers should sack anyone convicted of rioting thereby expecting others to display the harshness his Government have manifestly failed to apply in their efforts to prevent the rabble- rousers getting to France. Ironically, it was a move by the Tories last week to get Parliament to bring in legislation to stop hooligans travelling abroad that led to Clark's outburst in defence of them. It was completely un-Conservative to try to restrict people's movement, he said. They didn't do badly stopping pickets moving around during the miners' strike in the 1980s but we'll let that pass.

Neither will we mention the 18 years they were in power without attempting to impose the only measure likely to solve the problem apart, that is, from withdrawing the England team from all tournaments played on foreign soil. It is no surprise that loudest among the voices calling for England to be brought home forthwith have been experienced football writers who have watched the spread of the English menace more closely than most and despair of any other solution.

After the riots in Rome when England played Italy last October, it didn't take a genius to predict what was going to happen in France but the authorities were content to blame the Italian police for over-reaction.

Leading the chorus in this whitewash was David Mellor, appointed by Sports' Minister Tony Banks to head the Football Task Force which, I presume, was set up to help solve football's problems. They've been fearless in their attack on the price of replica shirts but have been strangely quiet on the number of career yobs with which the game is polluted.

Banks has refused to attend World Cup matches in protest at the ticket distribution. This useless piece of posturing comes from a man who has been free-wheeling around the globe drumming up support for England's bid for the 2006 World Cup. Wouldn't it have been a good idea for him to pop next door to see one in action? Might it also have been worthwhile for Banks and Mellor to have been in Marseilles?

The unpleasant masses currently festering across the Channel are a national disgrace that those empowered can no longer foist on anyone else.

NO other country performs its sporting rituals as conscientiously as the English and it takes more than a World Cup and a shaming corps of hooligans to deflect them from the traditional ceremonials that we are in the midst of this weekend.

The Lord's Test has long been more than just an international cricket match; it is an occasion of some might for those playing and watching irrespective of England's current form and the identity of the opposition. It is appreciated particularly by gentlemen of certain ties who are, no doubt, making the most of their privileged places in the pavilion.

Tomorrow, or tonight for some fanatics, the pilgrimage to Wimbledon will begin. The fact that for the majority of Wimbledon watchers this will be the only tennis at which they've stared intently since this time last year makes it all the more special for them.

But as much as I've enjoyed both the aforementioned events on many occasions, I have to state a preference for the delights of Royal Ascot which I experienced for the first time on Thursday. Neither the rain, nor being trussed up in top hat and tails, could spoil ladies' day. I bet Lord's can't wait until they get one.

ONE hesitates to put the boot in but it is difficult not to mention the atrocious luck experienced by Adidas whose television advert for their Predator football boots features David Beckham, Alessandro Del Piero, Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Kluivert. A great and expensive line-up but brutal luck has decreed that none of them is in action at the moment. Beckham has yet to get into the England team, Del Piero has been warming the bench and Zidane and Kluivert are both suspended. On the other hand, perhaps the message Adidas are trying to get across is that the boots will last longer if you don't play in them.

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