Hooliganism most foul

Violence has declined inside our football grounds but not on the streets outside, writes Rogan Taylor
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The Independent Online
Every Wednesday evening for the past month, English football has been assailed by a new crisis. At first, it was simply a player hitting a supporter, but in Ireland this week, something even more unpleasant hit the fan: English hooliganism returned to the front pages of the world's press.

It's only a few weeks since we were watching, with a certain sense of dj vu, the Italian government attempting to respond to the killing of a Genoa supporter prior to a match with AC Milan. Within days we learnt of another fatality, this time a football fan shot dead in France; a referee nearly killed in Portugal; serious trouble at matches in South America.

These events - and especially those in Ireland - will trigger surprise as well as horror among many people in Britain. If anything, the sad news of hooliganism abroad had seemed to emphasise how things had changed here for the better in the past five years or so. They were tragic reminders of the way it used to be at our own football grounds throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s.

But we shouldn't have been surprised. The scenes in Ireland illustrate a deeply intractable social problem; a poison that courses round the body politic in England and erupts in small ways every day of the week, on buses, at tube stations and in pubs where you regularly overhear racist remarks and xenophobic sentiments. The truth is that football violence mirrors a much larger, more extensive social violence. In recent years, it had only been squeezed out of our grounds - and, crucially, dragged away from the view of TV cameras to locations en route to matches. These acts of violence were rarely reported, if at all.

The match in Ireland was a prime target. Set against the backdrop of recent political developments in the Province, and held in a stadium not specifically designed (and, it seems, ill-prepared) to cope with such problems, it was perfect for those intent on disruption.

But we should not lose sight of the many gains that have been made in England in the conduct of football matches. Despite the continuing outbreaks of violence outside the grounds, the atmosphere within the grounds had genuinely improved. Hooliganism has been "unfashionable" among younger fans, who were more interested in the issues raised by fanzines and the wealth of other new football publications that have flooded on to the market in recent years.

Some of these magazines, however, have been clearly signalling the rise of a new "laddishness": the so-called "fanny and football" mags that have proliferated. With the game congratulating itself on the demise of the hooligan, trumpeting the return of the "family" audience, completing all- seater stadia and doing mega-money deals with television, it was in a perfect posture for a swift kick between the legs.

It does not cast us back instantly into the dark days of the 1970s, but it raises serious questions about the forthcoming European Championships due to be held in England a year this summer. This country has not staged a major international football event since 1966, and everyone knows why. The game's governing bodies could not have countenanced staging a championship here while hooliganism raged, both at home and abroad.

The FA rightly saw the decision by Uefa to bring the championships to England as a public recognition of the success of our anti-hooligan measures. And I don't believe the events in Ireland will be sufficient to disturb that decision.

Uefa will be comforting itself with the thought that those violent disturbances didn't happen in England; that, of all the nations in Europe, and for very depressing reasons, the English police are by far the most experienced at dealing with these kinds of problems. And where else could the tournament go at such comparatively short notice? Would Italy or France want it?

No doubt Uefa will look very closely at the security arrangements for 1996. But it would have done that anyway. What is potentially very disturbing, however, is the kind of reception and experience of Englishness that might await those brave visitors who come to watch the football. Everything might be fine within the grounds, with massive police presence and rigid segregation. But what will be going on outside them, on days without matches, in any one of half a dozen cities playing host?

We must hope that recent events - and those which probably lie in the future - do not put European supporters off from attending in 1996.

In the past, it is certainly the case that other national fans have not had that peculiarly English penchant for exporting hooligan behaviour.

The patterns of disorder are different abroad. In Italy, for example, with its long history of bitter rivalries between city-states, the worst behaviour surfaces when these old enemies face one another. But when the Azzuri run out on to the field, somehow these enmities are temporarily forgotten.

In sharp contrast, we seem to reserve our worst behaviour for foreign fields, in line, perhaps, with anachronistic ideas about Britain's imperial greatness.

The Germans did riot in Milan (before any English misbehaviour) in 1990, and hundreds of German fans were arrested in Belgium in the run-up to the last World Cup. But in the absence of the English, where were the problems in America last summer? The general picture, despite the German aberrations, is that, though there may be trouble in various home leagues abroad, it is not caused by the people who support the national teams. In 1990, the British tabloids did much to hype the prospect of English hooligans confronting their Dutch equivalents. In the event, the aggressive English elements encountered only the Carabinieri, so they had a fight with them. The Dutch, present in large numbers and full of fun, weren't even interested.

Making visiting fans properly welcome in 1996 is something we can act on. There will be negative publicity leading up to the championships, for sure. The FA is right to ask fans to help identify miscreants, but the administrators need to involve fans routinely in a much wider way. There is a great deal that can be done to positively counter the gloomy prognostications for 1996.

For example, the success of the "Football Embassies" run by the Football Supporters' Associations in Italy and Sweden should act as one model. These advice centres, operated by fans themselves, were a considerable help and a source of useful feedback to organisers at recent championships..

It was depressing to hear, not long ago,that the FA would not consider offering any financial assistance to help run anything similar next year. Just one hundredth of one per cent of the expected television deal would provide plenty.

The writer is director of the Football Research Unit at Liverpool University.