Mark Steel: The real message of the World Cup

Groups such as Migration Watch could be put to use reporting on villages that had no Costa Ricans
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The Independent Online

The World Cup has proved we need to encourage much more immigration. Because that's the best way to break down a crucial element in the tension between nationalities, which is these myths, from people who say things like, "They eat zebras, these Latvians. That's why you don't get no zebras on the estate these days. And they fry them with soil. You hear them at night digging it up for their breakfast, that's what's caused all the subsidence round here."

Or "My brother-in-law works down the Town Hall, and he'll tell you, them Somalis get straight off the boat, get taken down the council and get given a brand new hovercraft. Just like that. I mean, my daughter's been on the waiting list for a hovercraft for seven years."

Or "My cousin met an ambassador, and he reckoned there's millions more immigrants here than they let on, but you never hear about it 'cos they're given special permission to be invisible."

Which would make more sense than the measures taken by the good people of Hartlepool during the Napoleonic Wars, who came across a boat washed up in the harbour with no one on board except a monkey. And because the French at the time were depicted in cartoons as monkeys, the locals thought the monkey was a Frenchman, so they took it to court, tried it and hung it.

Whereas if there was a thriving French community in the town at the time, they might not have been so easily fooled. At least they'd have hung the monkey for being a monkey, with people calling radio phone-in shows to complain: "They go straight down the council, get groomed for free - and in my kids' school no one gets taught in English no more - every lesson goes 'squeak squeak aoo-a-a-a oo-oo-oo', it's a disgrace, John."

Or there's the latest fear to sweep all before it, that we're all being hunted by foreign criminals, and foreign criminals released at the end of their sentence are far more dangerous than British ones. It's as if people are saying "It's not fair - these immigrants are taking our murderers' jobs."

But when people work alongside, and live next door to, and send their kids to school with people from different backgrounds, groups that would have seemed irreconcilable see each other as human. So ancient rivalries can unravel, which may be why the most fearsome warrior in Wessex would be hard pressed now to recruit a gang to go Mercian-bashing.

Sometimes it seems these myths only spread so easily because they're never challenged. I spoke to a Turkish decorator once who said all Kurds stunk because they never wash. "That's rubbish," I said, "I know Kurds and they wash."

He replied, "Oh, do they? Oh, all right then mate, do you know I'd never thought of it like that before."

The World Cup provides an opportunity to accelerate that social mixing, because around the venues are groups of supporters from everywhere. And if someone's spent an afternoon, for example, getting drunk with a bunch of Poles, then getting lost on the tram system of Hamburg and crashing on their floor, it's going to be much harder to convince them every Pole reeks of sausage and they're only all over here to nick our cats and turn them into vodka.

One of my favourite moments of the tournament was outside Cologne railway station at the weekend, when some Mexicans started passing the ball to random strangers. Within five minutes around thirty people from a dozen nationalities were taking part, attempting twenty-yard passes that had to curl round tourists studying upside-down maps of the city centre, and if it had carried on much longer someone would have filmed it and somehow turned it into an advert for soup.

The further you get from this global mix, the less pleasant the atmosphere becomes. In England, in areas where several communities are represented, there can still be a joyous atmosphere about the games, including from the English. But where there's a predominance of England supporters and only a handful of "outsiders", you get the snarls of "Ceeeermmm on England," growled with the tone of an Alsatian in a breaker's yard.

Then you get the jabbing fingers that insist everyone over here should support England, if they want to live here. Just like all the English who've moved to Spain all support Spain, I suppose, and if they come across any English people waving an England flag they'll say "Oi - you're in Spain now so you back Spain you dirty English slag."

So newspapers who regularly feature immigration stories on their front pages should have headlines such as "Panic as 300,000 East Europeans set to move here - that's not nearly enough. This means there's bits of Shropshire that will hardly get any." And these "immigration monitoring" groups such as Migration Watch could be put to excellent use, for example by reporting on villages in Wiltshire that still had no Costa Ricans, so could do with a few.

Then everyone could enjoy the World Cup for positive reasons, and instead of seeking justification for English superiority, admire the camaraderie and the quality of the matches. Which means after the next England game, the news would do that bit where they say, "And this was the scene in front of the giant screen in Leeds," and there'd be one old tramp in the corner wetting himself, thinking, "I wonder why it's so quiet today."