The revenge of the street-fighting Euro-sceptics

Posted by ap507 at Jun 16, 2016 01:30 PM |
John Williams from DICE comments on politics, hooliganism and policing at the 2016 Euro football finals in France.

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A completely unscientific – but nevertheless entertaining - survey conducted by the website this week reported that one-in-five drivers who listen to football on the radio occasionally join in the singing and chanting while driving, and more than one-third said they felt their stress levels rise. Some drivers have to pull over to avoid potential accidents because of following the game too intently. Conclusion?  Football can do strange things to people.

We have seen plenty of evidence on this front in this past week in the Euros in France. Some Leicester City fans following England in Marseilles have had an especially convulsive couple of weeks.  Only just under a month ago they were cavorting on Leicester streets, exuberant players in a bout of the kind of unrestrained, inclusive and largely violence-free joy which we all hope could generally signify what it means to be a football fan.

But Leicester City’s extraordinary title celebrations have jarred against this week’s pictures and reportage on international football fandom from the south of France. A Leicester fan in Marseilles to watch England this week reported seeing English family groups being attacked by groups of organised ultras from Russia – balaclavas and gum-shields in place – while a man from Hinckley, Stuart Gray, is reportedly in a coma having been struck with an iron bar or a hammer on the way to the match in the Stade Velodrome.  This is a far cry from the beautiful game or from Kasabian-inspired Blue Army partying on Victoria Park just a few weeks ago.

All this might also have a depressingly familiar ring to it, and some England fans have clearly been far from blameless in relation to recent events.  Too much drink, chaotic expressions of collective, bellicose nationalism, and an enthusiastic filling of the masculinity supermarket trolley abroad, have all featured in the performance of a minority of England supporters over the past week. Recent examples of a more diverse, more carnivalesque, version of England fandom on the continent have taken a back-seat, as French riot police and England’s finest initially slugged it out. Add to the mix the serious leisure interests of groups of trained Russian ultras and some willing local French predators, and this cross-national search for adventure and aggressive identity projection has proved a pretty toxic, media-seductive, combination. Game on.

The French authorities and UEFA have seemed hapless and under siege this week. The French see football as a symbolic ‘solution’ to some of its problems of integration, recalling the country’s social healing produced by its 1998 World Cup success. But they have been mired in justifiable recent concern about the threat of terrorism, troubled by domestic riots and by industrial action, while being apparently utterly at sea in knowing exactly how to handle what began as boisterous and drunken English football unrest in the seaport area of Marseilles.

A few simple lessons might have helped here. Don’t encourage anyone who wants to go to travel, ticket or no ticket, and don’t schedule England’s hyped first match in risky Marseilles against high risk opponents for a Saturday evening kick-off at 9pm local time; intensively manage street drinking and especially the sale of alcohol in glass bottles; engage and intervene among English fans, before gradually scaling up to more aggressive tactics later if needed; don’t line up in riot gear as convenient targets for fans buoyed by a day’s boozing and disorder; don’t fuel expectations that the police themselves are tense and itching for action; be able to identity, isolate and arrest really dangerous hooligans of the organised kind. Fundamentally, don’t look like you have lost (if you ever had) control.

None of this is special pleading, or to dismiss English misbehaviour – but it really is not that difficult.  The Russians are something else, of course, but these England fans are generally not the organised hooligan firms of the past, but easily-led day-trippers by comparison. For example, Dutch police, as well as our own, have generally managed to prevent unpleasant chanting, and too much drink among their like, degenerating into running battles.  Recently, bolstered by the use of banning orders and intelligent policing, England fans have rather refashioned their behaviour and image abroad. But in scheduling matches in France, UEFA has listened too much here to TV executives and not to its own specialists on potential crowd problems, To show little consideration to the possibility of disorder when England and Russia were paired, by scheduling a weekend night-time showdown in Marseilles to court TV viewers, was simply reckless. Arrangements for Lille and Lens this week have rather compounded this mistake.

Added ingredients to this combustible cocktail today are the new interests now at stake in England in managing the game and its projection, and changing global relations.  Firstly, back in the 1980s English football was little loved, except by its core fans, and frankly it was expected to produce hooligan problems at home and especially abroad.  Politicians and others little cared beyond the embarrassment it caused and the requirements for a clampdown.  Now, English football is big business, with global sponsors, political advocates and lucrative TV contracts, and it has a highly valuable international image to protect. This kind of old-style misbehaviour must thus be effectively sealed off from the pacified, gentrified projection of Premier League football around the world.  Leicester City plays in Europe next season – and no-one wants high-street confrontations as part of that glittering agenda.  There is simply too much at stake.

Secondly, these troubles in France have been occurring against the backdrop of an incendiary debate here in England about immigration and especially whether we should be in – or out – of Europe. A defining vote looms next week.  Back in the 1980s, maverick Tory right-winger Alan Clarke often publicly revelled in the performance of the English hooligans and their ‘patriotic’ escapades in giving Johnny Foreigner a bloody nose abroad. This week some England fans have been openly chanting their disregard for Europe and for fellow Europeans. Perhaps some proponents of Brexit will also take heart from the ‘independence’ demonstrated this week by our unofficial envoys to the continent.  They are likely to do so privately of course. Certainly, anti-fellow European sentiment was acridly present among some of these present in Marseilles this weekend.  Should we be surprised?

Finally, there is an interesting political agenda emerging which also underpins the response of some senior Russian officials to the performance of some of its own, hard end, supporters this week. Macho man and sports fan Vladimir Putin and his colleagues have their own agenda in depicting western Europe as chaotic and degenerate and ‘against’ the interests of Russia, right now. In sport, the international anti-drugs agency WADA is still insistent that Russian athletes, supported by the state, have been doping, thus threatening their participation in the Olympic Games in Rio later this year.  Russia is also due to host the World Cup finals in 2018 against a background of allegations of FIFA corruption and cronyism and widespread concern about racism and homophobia in Russia. Putin and his backers are thus caught between publicly protecting these ‘real men’ of Russia at home, and somehow mollifying international concern abroad about Russia’s manifest problems.  He has a difficult horse to ride.

As England and Wales played it out in Lens recently, we at least got a little bit of peaceful British accord and a focus on the football, for once, rather than the fans.  Gareth Bale, Wales’ icon and Britain’s only truly world class football talent, accused the English before this match of lacking passion.  This charge seems misplaced. In distant Australia, for example, the new England rugby union coach, the Aussie Eddie Jones, recently demanded his own players show their ‘patriotic’ commitment to the national cause by making sure their faces are bloodied when they come off the field of battle. Perhaps it is the English way.  In France, off the field, meanwhile, it is exactly how some English football supporters express their own undoubted passion - and what that passion denotes – that remains of troubling concern.

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