'Ere we go, putting the boot in again

English readiness to attack the French is at the root of the row over World Cup tickets.
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CAN WE calm down and grow up now please? The anti-French hysteria in Britain surrounding the ticket arrangements for the World Cup has been an ugly and depressing spectacle. "Cheats"; "Charlatans"; "Fiasco"; "Farce"; "Disgrace". These have been some of the pleasanter epithets hurled at our neighbours. Our cartoon today elevates this outrage into the beginnings of an art form. Why?

There is a shortage of tickets for England and Scotland fans for France 98. That is, undoubtedly, one of the great humanitarian disasters of our time. (There is also a shortage for Dutch, Belgian, Italian, German and French - yes, French - fans but why bother about that?) The ticket arrangements have been misconceived and mishandled. But they have not been mishandled by the French government or the French people. Not even, for the most part, by the French organising committee.

There is a shortage of tickets for ordinary fans for much the same reason that there is a shortage of tickets for Arsenal and Newcastle United fans in the FA Cup Final in two weeks' time; for much the same reason that there was a shortage of tickets for Lens and Paris fans in the French cup final yesterday; for much the same reason that there has been an unnecessary shortage of tickets for big football matches for the 40 years that I have been a football fan.

The football authorities - in the case of the World Cup, the international body Fifa - have perpetual contempt for the ordinary fan. A greedily large proportion of tickets for the World Cup - 40 per cent, by my calculations - has been reserved, by edict of Fifa (ie not by the French organisers) for commercial sponsors and what is euphemistically called "the football family": the legions of major and minor football officials, their families and friends. By Fifa rules, agreed by the English and Scottish associations among others, only 20 per cent of France 98 tickets were to go to fans of the teams involved. Even this was an increase on any previous World Cup. But this figure has turned out to be (deliberately?) misleading.

The FA was supposed to receive roughly 10 per cent of tickets for England games. That should have meant about 4,000 tickets for, say, the England v Colombia game in Lens on 26 June. English fans were, originally, offered around 3,000 tickets. What happened to the others? Fifa - not the French organisers - allocated them to officials from other national football federations, not involved in that match.

There is some justification for rewarding local football officials for their voluntary work with seats for big games. But it is hardly a secret that these tickets, and the unnecessarily large number of places given to business sponsors (16 per cent), are the open seams mined by ticket touts.

Much the same problems and arguments have applied to the FA Cup Final for years, with constant grumbles by real fans but none of the hysteria and hypocrisy of the French- bashing orgy of recent days. Hypocrisy? It is true that around 60 per cent of tickets for this summer's World Cup will go (officially) to French fans and football administrators. But a similar share went to English fans at Euro-96 in England and to the host nation in every previous large, football tournament.

Imagine the situation in reverse. Imagine that the World Cup was being played in England this year, as it may be in 2006. Imagine the reaction of the Sun, David Mellor et al if Fifa or the European Commission in Brussels said that only - say - 30 per cent of tickets for a World Cup in England could go to English fans. "The great ticket robbery: foreigners to dominate OUR World Cup" etc ad nauseam.

It is clear that the football authorities - French and international - miscalculated how popular France 98 would be. They forgot that football had become a middle-class sport, patronised by youngish, well-off people, accustomed to travelling abroad. They placed the world's most watched sporting event in the world's most visited country, bordering on four of five fervent football-supporting nations. They chose a country with only medium-large stadia (mostly around 40,000); and Fifa specifically forbade the French to allocate the most sought-after games to the biggest grounds. They said up to 2,500,000 extra visitors to France could be expected for the World Cup but they provided (originally) only 700,000 tickets for them.

The European Commission's role in the Great Ticket Disaster of '98 has been fascinating. And also, fascinatingly, ignored by most British tabloid commentary. Here is poor old dry-as-dust Brussels climbing, with some success, aboard a populist bandwagon but, predictably, getting no credit for it. The Commission used one of the few genuine, independent powers it has - the power to ensure free and fair commercial competition between EU countries - to declare the original ticketing rules illegal. By reserving a mass of tickets for people with French addresses and French bank accounts, Brussels said the France 98 organisers had discriminated against football fans in other EU countries. It was for this reason that extra tickets were, hurriedly and chaotically, placed on open sale to all-comers in the EU in the last two weeks. (It was also the Commission which insisted that this must be done by telephone, not by an orderly allocation to national associations.)

The European Commission, in strict legal terms, has a point. But it has shattered the basis for all present, and future, security segregation of national fans in Europe. Its ruling means that, if England hosts the World Cup in the future, there could be no specific allocation for English fans. In effect, Brussels has declared that Europe is one football nation.

In one sense, the Commission is right. Football has become European. Look at the national composition of the Arsenal and Chelsea teams. Consider the fact that, in 1998, so many British people think nothing of travelling to France to watch a football game. This is a European success story.

On another, more elemental level, however, football is not at all European. The recent anti-French bile spilt out by much of our press is proof enough of that. The same organs and commentators will be full of moralising accusations if there is violence between fans (a British invention, successfully exported) this summer. But given the viciousness of the anti-French build-up, many of the weaker-minded England supporters could be forgiven for believing that they are crossing the Channel to re-fight Agincourt or Waterloo. It is time to cool it.