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England Fans Pose a Massive Dilemma

The tale of English football fans abroad is a long and painful one, writes John Williams, Director of the University's Centre for the Sociology of Sport.

We all know the story. My debut was at the World Cup finals in Spain in 1982, an event uncomfortably adjacent to the Falklands War.

Some England followers already had a bit of the 'Soccer Task Force' about them. The inevitable brawling which followed ended up with some brutal treatment for English hooligans at the hands of Madrid ultras and the Spanish police.

I had an early taste of police frustration in trying to cope with English excess. I was arrested in San Sebastian, along with many others, for being English and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We were strolling along the front when we were lifted. You don't want to spend too much time in a Spanish jail, I can tell you, when the locals are determined to frighten English supporters into behaving more reasonably.

At Euro 1984 there was no hooliganism in France - England failed to qualify. But in 1988 we were back to familiar themes, this time in Germany.

I was there for the mad running around in streets, the general chaos and the battles between fans around stations and bars in Dusseldorf and other cities. It produced hand-wringing from Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet, but this time there was the promise of a proposed football identity scheme for all fans in England.

That never came to fruition, and by 1990 at the World Cup in Italy the authorities tried to deal with the English threat by confining them to an island prison in Sardinia.

Arriving in Calgliari from the mainland, where everyone had been in carnival mood, was like moving between football heaven and hell. Gazza's tears and the performance of the England team eventually overtook the fans' story. Maybe we were shifting in a more positive direction?

There were still problems in Sweden in 1992, but by Euro 1996 in England there was a feeling that a corner might have been turned.

Attending these games at last felt more like a celebration of the sport - and of reasonably-friendly European rivalry - than a festival for the practice of the latest police technology. All right, there was Skinner and Baddeil to stomach but there were women at these matches and the Cross of St George was starting to muscle out the more menacing Union Jack.

But could we, the English, now maintain our cool, sometimes under provocation, abroad? Not at World Cup 1998, in electric Marseilles, we couldn't. There some of the locals took exception to their illustrious guests - cue police sirens and a new determination to spread the use of banning orders. Euro 2000, in Holland and Belgium, was a sort of half-result. Bad news in Belgium, where the Brussels constabulary had terrible memories of the English and policed accordingly, but better in Holland where the locals seemed more relaxed and fans gave them the benefit of the doubt and largely behaved.

Japan and Korea two years ago was no real test, it was more sushi and culture shock than beer-fest and beaches. So now we are here, facing Portugal in 2004, with the warnings of UEFA already ringing in FA ears about expulsion if English fans - or any English people in Portugal - misbehave. This sounds very glum.

Reasons to be cheerful? There is a contest going on now over who is the 'real' travelling England fan. The England Fans Forums organised over the past few weeks confirm that thousands of those going to Euro 2004 will be women, people with kids, couples, older fans and lots of young guys who want to see games and meet other fans, rather than run a street race with Euro plod.

When Sweden play Bulgaria in Lisbon on June 14, who do you think will be filling otherwise empty seats? Me and thousands of other similar football devotees from this country. So, Euro 2004 needs English fans, but not our young warriors. We are both the lifeblood and the main threat to these finals.

John Williams

Leicester Mercury article, June 11, 2004

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