Dominic Lawson: To watch England play football is a hellish experience - as I know to my cost

It was when the game was over and we left the stadium that the nastiness really began
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Sometimes the front page of a newspaper can capture the spirit of a nation. One such was Wednesday's issue of the Daily Mirror. Next to the masthead was the headline: "Potty peers attack ban on smoking." But the bulk of the front page was given over to a picture of Wayne Rooney, accompanied by the banner headline: "We're waiting. We're watching. We're praying ... it's Waynesday." Yes, it was that metatarsal again. The thing we used to call a toe.

Perhaps it was the lighting of candles in the chapel which doubles as the Daily Mirror newsroom which did the trick. Rooney returned from that day's scan on his injured foot with a grin all over his freckly face. Was this the Miracle of the Metatarsal? Somehow, it seems unlikely - even if you believe in miracles.

On the working assumption that God does exist, does it seem feasible that He might be an England supporter? All the evidence suggests that He supports Brazil. We may have invented the game of football, but our record of success in the World Cup is as nothing compared with that of Brazil. It is also the home of more than 150 million baptised Roman Catholics, vastly more than any other country, and approximately 15 per cent of the world's total.

I realise that these were devout men praying on their knees in the Mirror newsroom, but in general we are a deeply irreligious nation, and I hardly think that God - even supposing He wishes to exert His divine influence in such matters - would favour England over all other competing countries.

To watch England play a football game is not heavenly, but hellish. That, at least, is my experience. Eight years ago a friend asked me to accompany him to watch England play Tunisia in the 1998 World Cup. I was tempted, not by the idea of seeing a football game, but by the guarantee of a good dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Marseilles. That was where the pleasure began and ended. We stood behind one of the goals, in a non-seated part of the ground allotted to the England supporters. They had paid a lot of money for their tickets, which made their behaviour all the more strange. I could not believe that these men (I saw no women) actually enjoyed football. Most of them seemed to keep up a steady stream of abuse and outrage throughout the game. When I occasionally turned round to look behind me, all I could see were faces contorted with anguish, or, more often, anger. I think I would have felt more empathy with a crowd of self-flagellating Shias.

It was when the game was over and we made our way out of Marseilles' Stade Vélodrome that the nastiness really began. I suddenly became aware of bottles whizzing through the air. Some hit people. Others crunched into the sides of parked cars. Then there would be shouts and I could see a group of men wearing England football shirts chasing after a group of what seemed to be locals of north African origin.

The England fans later claimed that the local supporters of Tunisia had "provoked our lads". The riots went on for three days, at the end of which 80 England supporters had been arrested. But the most astounding fact of all was that this hatred had erupted after England had won the game.

What might have happened if "our lads" had not "done well"? We are assured that similar conduct on the part of England fans will not occur in the competition which starts tonight. That, presumably, explains why our Government has pre-emptively sent out a number of lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service and why Germany's entire riot police are on emergency standby and have been learning some basic English phrases (presumably such as "you're nicked, son") over the past few weeks.

Let's return to that Daily Mirror front page. What were those "potty peers" on about? On Tuesday the House of Lords' All-party Economic Affairs Committee had released a report pointing out that the Commons' decision to ban all smoking in public places (and private clubs) was based on the flimsiest of medical evidence.

The committee pointed out that the facts suggest that "the health risks associated with passive smoking are relatively minor, and the main harm, if there is one, concerns children who are exposed to passive smoking in the home, something which the bill is not designed to address". The Daily Mirror raged: "Sitting on the cosy red benches of the Westminster retirement home is no excuse for their ignorance. The freedom of an individual to avoid cancer-causing fumes deserves to triumph over the supposed rights of a tobacco addict."

As the Lords pointed out, the rights of a tobacco addict are not supposed but real. And there really is no evidence that cancer can be contracted via what the scientists call "environmental tobacco smoke". As Dr James LeFanu, among others in his profession, has pointed out: "The case against passive smoking rests on an absurdity: that it allegedly causes a type of cancer in non-smokers, adenocarcinoma, known not to be related to smoking. Passive smoking can not conceivably cause lung cancer."

Football, however, is a real killer. As the India Times pointed out last month: "Cardiac arrests, drunk-driving, fan violence, wife-beating, binge boozing, grazing on fatty snacks, even suicide - all these surge during a World Cup." It's not just the Indians, lacking our peculiar obsession with football, who have spoken out about the health risks associated with the World Cup. Our own University of Birmingham has released data about the surge in heart attacks that occurred in this country during the penalty shoot-out between England and Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. The Birmingham medics suggest that it might be advisable "on public health grounds" to ban penalty shoot-outs.

But why stop there? There is also the question of animal rights. As my friend Ross Clark pointed out some years ago: "Huge numbers of moles are gassed every year to preserve the flat surfaces of football fields. They die a horrible death, gasping for air as their lungs burn." (And let's not forget about the forests that have been destroyed so that every newspaper in the land can publish "exclusive" and yet identical 48-page World Cup special supplements.)

Leaving to one side the death agonies of our velvety friends, it is clear that football is much more likely to be fatal to humans than the inhalation of someone else's tobacco smoke. But will any of our leaders have the courage to call for a ban? The last one to do so was Edward II, who in 1314 banned the game from London, because, he said, "there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise, which God forbid".

Edward was murdered some years later by having a red- hot poker inserted in his anus. His killers were obviously football fans.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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