The surprisingly middle-aged, well-heeled Englishmen abroad Baying rival mobs? No, but the slobs were happy to have a go

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The Independent Online

Please calm down, everybody. Yes, there were ugly scenes in Charleroi on Saturday. Yes, the English fans did behave brutally and stupidly at times.

Please calm down, everybody. Yes, there were ugly scenes in Charleroi on Saturday. Yes, the English fans did behave brutally and stupidly at times.

One did not feel proud to be from Ing-er-land after spending the entire day, as I did, with the foul-mouthed, racist, xenophobic, boorish, drunken, surprisingly middle-aged, mostly well-heeled expeditionary force we sent across the Channel.

But there was no "riot" in Charleroi. There was no "pitched battle". There were no "rival mobs baying for blood". The fighting between English and German fans in the main square lasted for about 60 seconds. The clumsy but effective intervention of Belgian armoured water cannon and mounted police lasted about five minutes.

Anyone listening to, watching or reading some accounts might gain the impression that 400 England fans were arrested in this riot (it was actually a kind of brief, open-air pub brawl, started by the Germans and enthusiastically continued by our brave boys). By my observation, three or four English fans and maybe 30 Germans were arrested at the time in the Place Charles II.

The English score swelled later in the night when entire groups of fans were scooped up by the police for refusing to leave bars or clear the streets.

From what I saw (and I was water-cannoned with the rest of them), the apocalypse predicted for England v Germany in the little town simply did not happen. The credit should partly go the the Belgian police, who employed just about the right blend of stand-off and wade-in tactics at about the right times. Some of the credit should also go to the great bulk of England fans who - appalling as they were - did not seek, or accept, the opportunity for a full-scale riot.

Those newspapers shrieking loudest now are precisely the newspapers that built up the expectation of violence for weeks before the game and fed the xenophobia of fans with headlines like "Ve Vill Vin." Many of the English fans went into battle on Saturday wearing plastic St George's Cross hats marked The Sun.

My point is not to exculpate the England fans. In some ways, meeting them, observing them close up, you realise the problem is much WORSE than the Government or the official fan clubs admit. We are told that there is a hard core of troublemakers. This misses the point.

I would say that there were 15,000 England fans in Charleroi on Saturday (many fewer than forecast). Half had tickets; half did not. Of these, I would say 10 per cent are outright trouble-makers ("the thugs"); 10 per cent respectable, law-abiding supporters ("the fans"); and a depressing 80 per cent are good-humoured, aggressive, drunken, racist, foul-mouthed boors ("the slobs").

To tell the thugs and slobs apart was almost impossible. All were dressed in shorts and baseball caps and bandanas, sports shoes and expensive watches. Most were in their late thirties or early forties. The "thugs" actively seek trouble and violence. I saw them smashing car windows and chasing TV cameramen and smashing cameras after the match. The "slobs" try vaguely to keep out of trouble but are all too happy to pitch in once the aggro begins. On Saturday, both "thugs" and "slobs" got involved in the scuffles in the Place Charles II.

A group of Germans poured on to the square just before 3pm and began to throw bottles and chairs (according to one account they were angry because one of their mates had just been arrested). The England fans dived in. So too did the cavalry and the water cannon.

I have been in riots (in Los Angeles in 1992) and this was no riot. It was theatrical; bizarre; surreal; both ugly and almost relaxed. What happened was bad enough but we should react to what really happened, not to the exaggerated media headlines.

It is important that tactics to control England fans at future matches should be based on the muddled reality: not on a media fiction. It is important to try to appeal to the better nature of the slobs and isolate the thugs (who are beyond reason).