Threat of atmosphere of fear returns

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The Independent Online
After the shame, the foreboding. What new disgrace, after the events of Wednesday night, is in store for next summer if the European Championship is held in England?

It would appear, from Uefa's supportive reaction, that the tournament will go ahead as scheduled. This is predictable for few other countries are capable of putting it on at this notice. Even fewer can claim to be unaffected by hooliganism, or as sophisticated in countering it.

It is also the correct decision. Awful as Wednesday was the severity of the incident had much to do with the inefficiency of the Irish police and fooball association, and the inadequacies of Lansdowne Road. That is not to excuse the behaviour of the fans which could not possibly be condoned. But, sad as it is, it is a fact that football and security officials need to be prepared for the worst and they were not.

The FA, it seems, believes it will be prepared come next summer. So far its organisation seems impressive but much work must still be done. The appeal for fans to identify the hooligans is a good idea but is unlikely to be particularly successful. Many of the criminals are already known but still seem to be at large.

As usual, most were deported last night without being arrested or charged. The Irish government, like so many before it, is unlikely to be keen to take on the lengthy and expensive task of extraditing perpetrators and trying them. Previous cases have shown that it is notoriously difficult to prosecute charges of affray and riot.

As usual the Government has been swift to condemn - and slow to come up with solutions. Here is one. Why not try the offenders in English courts? It may require drafting new laws to cover offences committed overseas but, surely, these people are committing a crime against the interests of Britain.

Alternatively, an advance commitment by the FA to financing the cost of trials overseas may see a stronger line taken by other countries. As it is, some of the hooligans have been deported so often they have celebrated the ritual in song. One of the chants on Wednesday went, "When we are deported, this is what we say. We are England, God Save the Queen." This may seem expensive, but the cost to the game of a renewed atmosphere of fear would be massive, and not just in financial terms.

One thing Uefa may push for is the retention of fences. This should, at present, be resisted. Their removal has been generally successful. However there are risks. If a large body of people want to go on the pitch very little can be done to prevent them on most English grounds. Fences apart, there simply is not the room to erect human, or artificial, barriers.

Only Wembley, of the eight designated grounds for Euro '96, has the space. At the others the best alternative is not to sell the front three or four rows. This will already be the case for the first two rows - but for commercial reasons: Uefa's stipulated height for advertising hoardings blocks the view. Not selling four rows would allow more police and stewards to stand in front of supporters without affecting their sightlines. The steady replacement of police by stewards will also have to be looked at.

Even so, closed-circuit television and skilled policing have improved stadium security enormously, and the real danger for 1996 is outside. There are expected to be up to 500,000 visitors staying anywhere from plush hotels to organised camp-sites. It would seem almost inevitable that, at some stage, a group of neo-Nazis will descend on a camp full of foreigners in the dead of night. Security will have to be good.

There is a danger that only the lunatic fringe will come from other countries, creating the same imbalance of violent to normal fans that makes the English travelling support so dangerous. At home they are massively outnumbered by the peaceful majority and internationals are relatively peaceful.

Rooting out the organised, semi-political thugs will be very difficult. It is ridiculous that the Football Intelligence Unit can identify known hooligans and warn the Irish they are coming, yet both countries are powerless to stop their movement. Eradicating, or controlling, the foot-soldiers should be easier. To start with the Football Association must reverse the growing trend towards intolerance and ill-behaviour in grounds.

Any regular visitor knows that racist, xenophobic and foul abuse is still common. The Cantona incident highlighted this. The police now have powers of arrest for these offences and the clubs have powers of exclusion. It is about time they were more widely used.

The description "unforgettable" is, like "tragic" overused in sports coverage. I will never forget the scenes at Lansdowne Road on Wednesday night - and I desperately hope I will not see them again. Never before has it been hard to type because of tears of shame, anger and despair.

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