The Empire Strikes Back

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A few hours before England played Holland in Sardinia during the World Cup, 1990, a couple of thousand English fans set off down the Via Roma for the stadium. I was close to the head of this strange crocodile, made up almost entirely of white Englishmen aged between 16 and 35. Up ahead, more than 7,000 armed carabinieri — Italy's feared antiriot police — had thrown a roadblock to re-route the march. I was there simply to listen to what went on. As we approached the armored cars and riot shields, various comments emerged from those at the front. "Do you fancy a go, lads?" "They're only Italians." "We'll go through them like a bayonet through butter."

And they did. I remember thinking afterward, "If I were in the British army, halfway up the Khyber Pass in 1863 — when the Rules of Association Football were first written — with a horde of Pathan warriors ahead, these are the boys I would want with me." They're strong and fit; they will act together with focused violence; and they're not afraid of anybody, especially not foreigners. These are, at least, some of the characteristics that built the British Empire. It may have crumbled long ago, but the Empire still strikes back, albeit in such a perverse and anachronistic way, and one that may cost England the chance of hosting the 2006 World Cup. Some of the psychology that built the Empire remains, like sediment, in the hearts of these youngish, white supporters of ΤIn-ger-land.'

Football hooliganism and the England team abroad have gone together for nearly 30 years. Even during the '90s, when the game became rich, glamourous and sexy, it has proved intractable. Almost everyone expects trouble at Euro 2000, and England remains the focus of most concern.

The "English disease," as it became known, today involves the export of hooliganism. Most European football nations have had their own brand at home for years, but these troublesome boys rarely traveled abroad with their national teams; only the English did that. Who can name an English city that has been trashed by foreign fans? Who can name a major European city that hasn't been trashed by the English? So, though referees might get shot in Spain, fans stabbed to death in Italy, nail-bombs thrown in Dutch stadiums and neo-Nazis rumble in Germany, abroad there were rarely any problems with these nations when their fans went abroad.

The first signs of change came at Italia '90. While everyone was expectantly watching the English for trouble in Sardinia, the Germans and the Yugoslavs had an almighty riot in Milan, where teams of recently liberated East German hooligans systematically looted their way through the city's expensive shops. U.S.A. '94 largely passed without incident (no doubt partly because of the absence of the English — a lucky circumstance for the organizers, whose bill for security services reportedly shrunk by a couple of million dollars as a consequence.) But the German fans were again responsible for the worst single incident in the World Cup four years later when an attack on a French gendarme left the victim almost totally disabled.

So the prospects for a trouble-free Euro 2000 are not good. The Dutch and the Germans have a rivalry made bitter by memories of wartime occupation and the hooligans from Holland are on home soil where they're at their worst. England-Germany matches often provoke violent confrontations and are always seasoned by England fans doing the dam-busters: standing with their arms out like R.A.F. bombers and singing, "There's only one Bomber Harris." And now there's the new joker in the pack: the Turks. It's only two months ago that two Leeds fans were stabbed to death in Istanbul before the match with Galatasaray and but a few weeks since violent fights broke out before Arsenal's uefa Cup Final in Denmark against the same Turkish club. Turkey has qualified for Euro 2000, and millions of Turks live as "guest workers" in northern Europe, ready and able to attend their country's matches. Nationalism runs as strongly through some of these fans as it does through the English. They could meet in a quarter-final, but even if they don't, the prospect of accidental (or sought out) confrontations between these two nations' fans is disturbing.

The odds are, if there is trouble, it will involve the English. Besides their "dedicated" hooligans — who actively seek violence — England's fans always seem to have a few hundred others willing to give fight if anyone wants one. And as Europe's No. 1 "firm," lots of provocation comes their way, not only from local lads with something to prove, but also, sometimes, from local police. Most matches will no doubt pass without incident, but there are a few which more or less guarantee street violence. In modern democracies it is almost impossible to prevent — especially when those involved have no previous record. Meaning that the few will again damage the game's image for the many.