The Real English Patient

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The elimination of england's soccer team with its lumpen-style football was only a minor part of the relief felt throughout Europe last week. For along with the team, the loathed England soccer supporters—my snarling, boozing, racist, foul-mouthed, incomprehensibly violent fellow countrymen—also went home. For a civilized tournament to be rid of England soccer fans must be something like the elation felt when the inbred, outcast cousin everybody hoped wouldn't turn up at the family wedding announces he is leaving early. The party can now get going properly.

Back in embarrassed England, however, a subtle change in attitude was forming within hours of the last English outrage in Belgium. Other countries' supporters, it was being argued in the English media and on radio phone-ins, were almost as bad. Just look at the Turkish soccer fans tearing up Brussels, as they did one night, we were urged. Coverage was given to the Los Angeles Lakers' supporters celebrating their team's basketball league triumph. If 12 people could be injured, 12 arrested and a police car and a television van torched by American fans, perhaps we in England didn't have such a problem after all?

But we do. It's a specifically English social problem, and attempts to diffuse it by pointing to the odd outbreak of deviance by other nations are dangerously self-deluding. Even as a devoted soccer fan and patriotic England supporter, I think Her Majesty's beer-bellied brigade trashing Charleroi and Brussels voided our last claim to host the 2006 World Cup in England.

What, after all, is the substance of that claim? We can no longer maintain the fiction that we are great at football. Our home Premier League may be magnificent, but it's an illusion, the best teams being stuffed with brilliant, non-English players. Our stadiums are nothing special, our public transport is poor and our cities are not particularly welcoming. British hotels in particular are a world-class ripoff.

But most importantly, a substantial minority of our young men have grown up seemingly unable to behave decently in public. The yelling, cafe-table-throwing storm troops of imbecility which the world saw in Belgium are only part of the picture. Their insane excesses have bred an acquiescence in England towards lesser offensive behavior. When we see louts merely shouting, lurching drunkenly and leering in the street, we smile indulgently at their "good humor." As a result, even well-brought-up boys think nothing of bellowing to their friends in public.

The cause of our young men's disastrous loss of dignity and self-restraint is complex. Poor education is clearly a big factor; an obsession with alcohol combined with an inability to hold it is another. The old English disease of class alienation may be involved. Absent fathers and lack of male role models for boys, along with a preponderance of financially hard-pressed single-parent families are thought by some to be significant. Then there's the decline in manufacturing and heavy industry, which seems to have left large numbers of English men feeling they are somehow emasculated—although how similar social changes have failed to send young men in Scotland, Wales and Ireland on the rampage remains a mystery.

What is most perplexing and frustrating about the bad English fans, however, is their aggressive nationalism, which somehow manages to be both forlorn and arrogant. A good half of their chanting and vainglorious pride centers on World War II. The rest is split between England's victory in the World Cup of 1966 and a racial superiority complex which belies the hooligans' extraordinary physical ugliness, and, dare one say it, inferiority in everything from brain to brawn.

Whatever the cause, our problem in England is that it's our problem. We can't blame anyone other than ourselves or look to anyone else to try to solve it—a task of social engineering which could take generations. Our government's pusillanimous attempts to avoid exporting the thuggery to the Low Countries this month failed. It is absurd to imagine that, given the go-ahead to stage the 2006 World Cup in England, we could control our hooligans at home. To do so would require internment, an option which isn't even available for suspected terrorists.

Some in England continue to argue that we have a right to stage the 2006 World Cup because "England is the home of football." By this logic, the Olympics would always be in Greece, and all the world's literary festivals in Iraq, because the Babylonians, after all, invented writing.

The English did codify the game of soccer, but we also invented the violence which comes as its bitter garnish. We are, sadly, pariahs. If England manages to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, we cannot complain if we are disbarred because of our poisonous supporters. And if our team is allowed to compete, but has to travel to the competition without supporters, so be it. Our duty to the rest of the world is to lie low as a soccer power for as long as it takes to civilize our young men.