I'm ashamed to be an Englishman

ÔYes, Uefa is right; and if there is one regret, it is that it has done for England what honour insisted we should have done ourselvesÿ
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The Independent Online

It had to happen. It couldn't go on, not all that vomiting of a nation's pride, that dreary, lemming-like trampling of the sensibilities of foreign cities and towns, whose citizens huddle together in shock and disbelief when the English football "fans" leave their calling-cards of beer stains and broken glass.

It had to happen. It couldn't go on, not all that vomiting of a nation's pride, that dreary, lemming-like trampling of the sensibilities of foreign cities and towns, whose citizens huddle together in shock and disbelief when the English football "fans" leave their calling-cards of beer stains and broken glass.

Indeed, there can be only a few small regrets in the wake of the decision taken by Uefa, the European football authority, to put the hooligans on notice that they are just one riot away from causing the banishment of their team from the European Championship currently being played in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Naturally, there is concern for the betrayal of the team, who won a famous victory over their most bitter rivals, Germany, last Saturday night, even as revulsion at the behaviour of their invading compatriots was hardening into an official resolve to take action.

But if the plight of the players is sad, it cannot be equated with the outrage now being felt in the sophisticated city of Brussels and the small industrial town of Charleroi, the latest victims of a rampage that is now nearly 30 years old. There is also the matter of the name of England across the sports world. Grimly, it is now synonymous with a breakdown in civilised behaviour.

The roots of football hooliganism reach back to the early Sixties, when Everton fans, returning from a match in Sunderland, took over a train travelling between Leeds and Liverpool. I happened to be on that train - and in the Feyenoord stadium in Rotterdam 10 years later, when Tottenham followers ran amok in the city and then fought Dutch spectators and police at the cost of 200 injured; the great Spurs manager, Bill Nicholson, appealed for calm on the public address system, adding in a breaking voice: "You people make me feel ashamed to be an Englishman."

There is neither time nor space to list all the occasions when that emotion of Nicholson has come back as hard and raw as the first time you saw the mad-dog ravaging of some great boulevard or village street abroad.

Yes, Uefa is right; it cannot go on, and if there is one overwhelming regret, it is that a committee of European football bureaucrats have done for England what national honour insisted it should have done for itself.

Uefa has moved toward closure of England's shame, and it is a small irony that, in doing so, it has heaped a little more reason for shame on to the nation which incubated a disease so fiercely and exported it with not much more than an official shrug.

Certainly it is hard to believe that just a few weeks ago Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, was lecturing Belgian and Dutch officials on the need for firm action against the hooligans. Lock them up, said Straw, omitting only to add that it would be to our great convenience if they also threw away the key.

The time for such evasions of responsibility is surely over; and if there are now cries from within football that the game is carrying responsibilities that properly belong to all of society, the Football Association should perhaps be invited to discuss the injustices of life with the burghers and the people of Brussels and Charleroi. They bargained for football tournaments, a festival of sport, not an effusion of hatred and random violence and the numbing sense that their lives had, for a little time at least, been put on hold while a sinister phenomenon displayed itself with grotesque pride.

If the Uefa decision appears draconian, it is not; it is rather a snapping of patience, a belated conclusion that what a large group of socially dysfunctional English men and boys bring to football is simply no longer acceptable. It never was, of course, but maybe there was a belief that the malignancy would pass if it wasn't prodded too hard, that in time the world's game would, because of its power to bring joy, sooner or later expel the problem.

That was the optimistic thought that provoked Uefa to lift its ban on English clubs imposed after the tragedy of the Heysel stadium - as it was then known - in Brussels in 1985, when 35 Juventus fans died during the Italian club's European Cup final with Liverpool. The hope was that the English virus had died, that a hard streak of violence had found new outlets in Saturday night pubs and Ibiza disco strips. It was an unpretty but hopeful thought, though now shattered utterly by the yobbish, racist alliance that has attached itself to the England team and that sports the flag of St George not as an emblem of pride but as a rallying point of hatred and contempt for all foreigners.

Now the Government, still absurdly trailing its hopes for the campaign to host the 2006 World Cup, has been pushed into a corner out of which it can emerge only by the frank admission that, despite a torrent of warnings, it has done too little, too late. Uefa has said that platitudes are worn out and only action will do. If this action involves the exile of England's team and even that of the hugely profitable high-profile clubs from the megabuck European competitions, it is a price that will just have to be paid.

The alternative - a continuation of the anarchy that in Belgium and the Netherlands gives all Englishmen pariah status - would represent nothing so much as a failure of both national will and conscience. Passports have to be lifted, as they were in Germany after the violent excesses of some of their fans during the World Cup in France two years ago - and civil libertarians may have to be told, finally, that large sections of civilised societies hitherto uncontaminated by the violent slobbishness of England's virulent minority of fans are in need of a little protection, too.

Those most concerned with hooligan rights are certainly warmly invited on a random fact-finding journey back through the years. They could start on that train rattling over the Pennines. They could see a little of the terror that came to the trapped, innocent passengers, the anguish of a young man attempting to protect his girlfriend from brutish advances, the horror of a middle-aged woman as urine seeped into her compartment, the ashen faces of parents clutching at their children.

They could look into the expressions of disbelief on the faces of Rotterdam people that sunny day when café tables went flying, glass shattered and suddenly every corner of the street was filled with a previously unknown menace. They could see streets cleared in panic in Cagliari and Düsseldorf and they could see what I saw from the balcony of a hotel room overlooking the old port of Marseilles. They could see evil foment over a long day of drinking and then the first scuffles and fights and the volleys of beer cans and glasses and the riot police forming up and loading the tear gas, and later they could see the kid with his throat slashed and all the time hear the chants of "In-ger-land, In-ger-land", and they might think again about their insistence on the preservation of such niceties as allowing the authors of such behaviour out into the world.

Much more recently they could have seen how it was in Brussels before the English arrived. They could have seen the amiable Swedes drinking beer and debating the possibilities of their opening game with Belgium. They could have seen them slipping unobtrusively into the life of the city. They could have seen how it is supposed to be when nations gather to play football, rather than make their own, rancid version of war.

The idea of England's footballers being sent home is indeed one of terrible sadness, but sometimes in life sacrifices must be made. For the sake of the country's name, this is such a one. The shame has to stop.

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