Return of the curse

THERE was at lot at stake in the evening but yesterday afternoon Anglo-ltalian friendship could not have seemed more secure. In support of England's 2006 World Cup bid the FA had borrowed the British Ambassador's Roman residence to wine and dine the movers and shakers of the Italian media. As Sir Bobby Charlton, Bobby Robson, Alex Ferguson and Tony Banks MP pressed the flesh, it was easy to feel good about England's prospects for the night and beyond.

However, once out of that sheltered environment reality returned with the steady wail of police sirens and the buzzing of a police helicopter overhead. The sirens had been a constant backdrop to the pre-match buildup from Friday afternoon onwards and it did not augur well.

Those fears proved well founded. On arriving at the stadium the mood seemed festive, pop bands played on the turf and the only violence was a spat between two Italian journalists. But, looking around the ground the arrangements seemed flawed. The England fans were split into two groups, one in a corner of the Curva Sud, the other in a corner of the Curva Nord. This was due to ticketing mismanagement by the Italian authorities, who sold tickets en bloc to local agents. They passed them to English counter parts.

There was some early trouble in the Curva Nord, which housed the 7,000 members of the official England travel club, but almost all the problems were among the unofficial fans at the Curva Sud. However, having been kept back after the game for two hours, even the patience of the official fans was being tried as night moved into morning.

The fans were fenced in but there were no "firebreak" gaps between English and Italian, the only division was a human one made by the carabinieri. This was gradually eased back as England fans arrived, then the missile-throwing started. It probably came from the Italians first, but the English were not slow at returning first the plastic water bottles, then the ripped-up seats.

This, inevitably, led to handto-hand fighting, mainly on the first on Curva Sud, the police piling in with batons and fans retaliating with fists and boots. Part self-defence, to be sure, but many of those involved were seeking confrontahon, provoking th e climate for it with their aggressive stance towards Italian fans and police alike. Two decades of hooliganism have made foreign police understandably nervous and prone to using the baton rather than the smile.

It was not a continual running battle. The violence was sporadic and sometimes incongruous. As the front-line moved back and forth across the terrace, England fans would occasionally be left tending their wounds and not bothered by the carabinieri.

Then a policeman was rushed out of the maelstrom and put on the cart which had been ferrying injured players to the touchline. Later, fears that his injuries were serious were allayed. And yet a long night loomed despite a peaceful second-half.

There is little more the FA can do. Their ticketing arrangements had, said Graham Kelly, "impressed Fifa". The problems arise when other federations are less strict. In the absence of the political will required to prevent such people travelling, and the presence of such mismanagement, last night's events were inevitable.

There is one other factor. The fans do make a difference. The Stadio Olimpico is a hostile place to away teams and England were visibly lifted by their supporters' physical and vocal presence, acknowledging them before and after the game. Channelling tha t patriotism and passion into purely positive support is an immense challenge. A few repeats of last night in France next summer and no amount of wining and dining will get Engand the 2006 World Cup.

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