Leading Article: The English can teach a lesson to the great football nations

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The Independent Online
"Unfortunately the past reputation of England fans has gone before them," a Football Association official said yesterday, stating the conventional wisdom about what happened in the stands at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday. It is a piece of wisdom, however, that needs to be challenged if those scenes are not to be repeated in France at the World Cup next year. For the fact is the domestic reputation of English football fans is excellent and has been pretty good now for a number of years. Saturday afternoons and weekday evenings, especially in the Premiership, are not quite oases of social peace, but trouble in last weekend's terms just does not happen. Understanding why that should be so is a key to ensuring a better outcome when England visits abroad in future.

We have had the braggadocio, notably from David Mellor - his panting enthusiasm to drop an immediate and half-informed view, preferably anywhere near an open microphone is a bad augury for his conduct of the official review of footballing policy. We have had the half-baked nationalism which prefers stereotypes to real-life diversity - not all Italian policemen are wonderful, but neither are all of them practising for a role in the Taviani Brothers' forthcoming epic of Il Duce and his Blackshirts. We have also had the - sometimes harrowing - tales of returning fans caught up in a bewildering situation not of their making, in which poor stewardship and bad organisation bear much of the responsibility. We also have the verdict of Italian courts on "fans" whose sporting instinct is provocation and putting the boot in. Our Rome correspondents' reports of the behaviour of these ambassadors of modern England make for dismaying reading: we look forward to the next Demos report on what to do about the brand image these louts project.

Except it is something they can only get away with abroad. Football in England - Scotland reorganised the game before and Wales has never had similar problems, at least on any scale - has been cleansed. It took the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters to provoke action. On the latter there are questions of cause and effect outstanding, which Lord Justice Stuart- Smith's inquiry may finally answer; but Lord Taylor's report led to dramatic changes in both the safety and comfort in which most fans watch football. In recent years football has been modernised. Capacity has been cut, terracing bulldozed and replaced by seats. Clubs have turned themselves into commercial operations and some of them even treat their paying customers with a modicum of respect.

In parallel, probably without sufficient credit, the police have got their act together. They have been helped by the virtual disappearance of casual travelling - nowadays there are simply too few opportunities for irregular supporters to find their way in. Tony Banks yesterday identified travel control - or rather its lack - as one reason for Saturday's mayhem. The courts have powers to block the movement of known troublemakers. And known they are, for the police, and the football authorities, have professionalised their intelligence gathering. One of the better consequences of the establishment of the National Reporting Centre and the other measures of centralisation that accompanied the miners' strike in the mid-Eighties was an end to petty regional rivalries among police forces, especially between provincials and the Met. Now that football clubs know who their supporters are - the lucky ones who qualify for season tickets - the task of identifying the trouble-makers has become easier. One very good reason why what happened at the weekend should not influence football's international authorities in their decision about whether to locate the 2006 World Cup in England is that it said nothing about English football conditions.

Indeed what it said was that other countries, including Italy, may have something to learn from English techniques and experience, especially in terms of ticket management and big event stewardship. The relevant comparison is Euro '96: England's track record is outstanding. The English example says that "policing" is not just a matter of boys in blue, shields and batons; it is a question of cooperation from the very earliest stages of police forces, football authorities, transport undertakers, publicans and so on. Methods of ticket allocation are as much part of the package as body searches - necessary, surely, only where intelligence indicates individuals or groups likely to throw objects - at the ground. Every footballing country in Europe has its problem "fans" - including the otherwise pacific Dutch. Can the German and the Italian and the French authorities identify them as readily as the English? That is a question which the French state should be asking with real urgency and demanding answers - not just from those countries which qualify.