England's real national sport: getting filthy drunk

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The Independent Online

Euro 2000 is bearing down fast, but should England acquit itself as England expects, the summer will offer possibilities of sporting redemption not always available to other nations whose football teams fail to shine. As the inventors of almost every game known to the species, the English have a lot more sports in which to invest their passions than the other European peoples, for whom football tends to be all-consuming.

Euro 2000 is bearing down fast, but should England acquit itself as England expects, the summer will offer possibilities of sporting redemption not always available to other nations whose football teams fail to shine. As the inventors of almost every game known to the species, the English have a lot more sports in which to invest their passions than the other European peoples, for whom football tends to be all-consuming.

But there is in England one sport that, viewed from the Continent, is the national sport. It is a sport to which the football fan is as dedicated as the cricket-lover, the rugger bugger, the darts devotee. A sport that cuts across the class lines that tend otherwise to demarcate the islanders' favourite pastimes. The sport of getting drunk.

It is not that elsewhere in Europe they do not get drunk. They just don't make such a big deal about it. Getting hammered is fine. It's OK. It may be fun. But it's not a badge of honour. It's not cool.

What is baffling to the Europeans, and one reason why they see the English as "different", is that English culture prizes drinking for drinking's sake. I have lived away from England for 20 years, but on my frequent visits home I'm continually reminded of this. The Englishman, for we're talking here of a predominantly male condition, doesn't just get drunk. He talks about getting drunk as he is getting drunk. And the next morning he talks about it again, going over the previous night's booze tally as he might go over the previous night's football game.

So, to cite an instantly recognisable - if imaginary - example, a local couple from Barcelona go out for dinner with an English foursome who have flown over for a long weekend. It is 9.30 on a Saturday night. The conversation begins with the English foursome listing the numerous beverages they have been consuming since six in the evening. They then recall, amid much flushed hilarity, the terrible hangovers with which they have awoken that morning, after a terrifically successful Friday night on the town.

Then the waiter arrives and enquires whether the ladies and gentlemen would be interested in some wine. The English foursome exchange jocular, nudge-nudge, "what a question" glances. "Ooh... well, yeah... ooh... I think so, really, I think we might, don't you?"

The Barcelona couple are embarrassed by what they regard to be their visitors' childish frisson. But the English grown-ups are unaware that there is anything to be embarrassed about. For them the prospect of a night's heavy drinking is the biggest thrill that life has to offer, as if they remained in the Puritan throes of some ancestral, but genetically durable, notion of alcohol as forbidden fruit.

Here, in this inability to see oneself as others see one, lies part of the explanation for that well-known English export, the hooligan problem. Hooliganism and alcoholism are obviously inseparable. Hooligans are not hooligans if they are not disgustingly drunk. If all they did was sip tea, English football fans abroad would not sing progressively more obscene, more offensively xenophobic songs; they would not urinate on ancient monuments; they would not start riots when an indignant local suggests that they might avail themselves of a public lavatory.

What the hooligans do is merely a grotesque, beer-sodden continuation of the less indiscreet behaviour displayed by members of polite English society on a night out in Barcelona. What neither group quite understands is that the locals do not behave in the same way.

The English tribes abroad are not simply brandishing their machismo when they get blind drunk; they believe - and here is the point - that they are competing against the natives. They are showing them how it should be done. They are reminding them that, never mind the football, when it comes to what they imagine to be the universal sport of drinking, the English are the undisputed world champs.

No prizes, then, for the National Criminal Intelligence Service when it tells us that it is "almost inevitable" that English fans will run amok once more at the Euro 2000 championships in Holland and Belgium. Well, of course. Because it is completely inevitable that a very substantial chunk of them will be staggering drunk for most of the time. Because, however much they may enjoy their football, being true Englishmen, they love bingeing even more.

Football hooliganism is a disease patented in England that turns into a plague when exported. How can it be cured? Not by the police. They can only deal with the symptoms. The cure will come only when the English grow up, when the culture stops thinking that it is clever to be drunk.

The writer is a journalist for 'El Pais'. He lives in Barcelona

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