Early yesterday evening I went up to the gym to blow a few cobwebs away by doing what at my age I would call a session (but maybe those under the age of forty might not because it consists of me doing only whatever exercising I can until immediately I feel either body or spirit becoming unwilling).
As I walked along the corridor to the stairs to the cardio room, I bumped into a chap of about my age who immediately said hi and asked how my current stint was going. I reported that it hadn’t actually begun yet, explaining that my evidently sweaty T-shirt and face simply resulted from the great humidity in the downstairs male changing rooms. We grinned at each other (that was all I could do because, although he knew my name, for the life of me I couldn’t remember his).
Twenty minutes or so later I went along to the weights room and bumped into said gent again. This time he asked what I’d thought of ‘the England game’. It soon became clear that he was referring to the previous evening’s match between England and Russia at the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles in Group B of the Euro 2016 football championships currently taking place in France and not England’s rugby union victory over Australia in Brisbane on Saturday morning, which I had chosen to record (avoiding all television and radio reports) until Saturday evening when I watched it ‘as live’ in the sanctuary of my home.
I indicated that I was yet to watch a single second of Euro 2016, however I had read media reports of the match – and indeed the violence take took place, both during at after it, between Russian and English fans.
Our subsequent discussion was necessarily limited to my understanding that England had played well enough to dominate possession but disappointingly had given away an equalising goal at the death. After my companion, a Scot, said he was highly impressed by the quality of the England squad I tried to add some communal ‘gallows humour’ by suggesting that I was not at all sure that – in line with England’s historical poor record in major soccer tournaments – we wouldn’t lose to Wales next Thursday and soon be on our way home.
Once I had returned home, watched a bit of the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix and retired to bed, I began listening to the radio and learned that, after a preliminary investigation, EUFA had placed both Russia and England on notice of potential further sanctions if either of their sets of fans misbehaved again during Euro 2016.
Back in the bad old days of the 20th Century – let’s just say 1970 to 1995 to take a broad-brush period – England, or should that be Britain, seemed to be suffering from the inevitable excesses of having reaped what it had sown, viz. a home-grown underclass of dispossessed yobs (of all ages and backgrounds) who, disconnected from any personal aspiration or ambition, seemed to delight in spending their time planning and executing mob violence up and down the country.
In one way or another, this phenomenon was connected to football – a ‘people’s game’ firmly rooted in ‘local’ clubs that from time immemorial had attracted tribal support with all the accessories that attend upon it. Specific and distinctive team colours, scarves, banners, flags and other accessories … talismanic or ‘folk hero’ players, traditions and famous matches or incidents peculiar to themselves … and particular rival teams, sometimes close, sometimes from clubs at the other end of the country, against which matches became matters of huge significance (irrespective of the competition they were playing in on any specific occasion) and the source of temporary ‘bragging rights’ that lasted until the next time they met.
In stating above ‘this phenomenon was connected to football’, I am attempting to cover the difference between asserting that the type of hooliganism being referred to was specifically (directly or indirectly) football-caused – and claiming that in actual fact it was instead a ‘movement glorifying mindless violence’ that happened to find football (and the existence football clubs) a convenient, indeed helpful, means of justifying its behaviour and gaining adherents.
Football hooliganism became a huge problem for Britain, especially when – apparently routinely – we managed to export it whenever our leading clubs or international teams played away. Mass violence abroad, police undercover work, cooperation with foreign authorities, bans (or the threat of bans), the arrival of all-seater stadia, improved crowd control and security – all these played their part in gradually dealing with the worst excesses to the point where, in 2016, some might fondly have imagined that British football hooliganism was a thing of the past.
That’s probably never been the case, nor ever will be.
I’m not much au fait with the modern Premiership (possibly commercially the biggest sport in the world?) with its TV deals worth telephone-numbers of billions of pounds and mega-rich players, agents and managers, but beneath the fabulous stadia and blanket media coverage I am sure that there are ‘units’ of fans of certain clubs – great and small – that still plan violence against their traditional foes every week or every month. Just as there are police units up and down the country that monitor them. Indeed, if you totalled up the total annual UK police budget spent upon football – both the elements of general crowd control/travelling and potential crowd violence (or the prevention thereof) and were able at a stroke to ‘get rid of the problem’ and instead spent that amount on a range of public services and other ‘good causes’ that we as a country hold dear, you’d be very surprised [well, you’d also be very surprised, period, obviously] at what wider problems you might be able to solve.
There are always going to be English football hooligans who travel abroad. There are also always going to be football hooligans from every country other under the sun who travel abroad. Bring them together – under the guise of a great football tournament, or even just an informal ‘hooligans convention’ – in a sunny clime, with other foreigners who don’t speak the same lingo, especially with alcohol and plenty of ‘free time’ available to imbibe it whilst waiting for matches to come around – and you’ve got a potential tinder box that could go up at any time.
The trouble is the ‘tribal’ nature underlying the root causes of mob violence. If country A has a reputation for its hooligans, you’re inevitably going to get their equivalents from countries B and/or C keen to appear at the same tournaments in order to provoke clashes in the cause of seeing ‘see who is the hardest’. It’s all mindless, stupid, anti-social and pathetic, of course. But that doesn’t mean anyone is going to listen to reason.
Much depends upon the authorities in charge – the planning, the preparation, the security measures put in place to cope with any violence (which must be anticipated under any ‘worst case’ scenarios rehearsed) – but even they can only do so much.
At the moment, although there were some reports of England supporter-only incidents in downtown Marseilles (whether involving Russian fans, or just local French bad boys was unclear) before the Russia game, since then the British media has made great play of the behaviour of some Russian fans in attacking innocent England fans immediately after the match and highlighted other Russian ‘heavies’ who apparently arrived on the scene with disguises, mouth-guards, knives and marital arts gloves clearly intent on a dust-up.
Meanwhile, the Russian media has instead put the trouble down solely to English football hooligans and drink.
Who knows what the truth is? Personally, I tend (or want) to believe that the British version is broadly correct. Most English fans had gone there for the football and no doubt there was a group of Russian hard-core ‘ultra’ football hooligans who had come to do nothing more than provoke as much trouble as they could. After all, I suppose if your president behaves on the world stage like a Grade A geo-political military hooligan, I guess the rest of the world has to expect and/or allow for the fact that your disaffected youth are going to regard that sort of behaviour as a source of national pride and seek to imitate it on the sporting stage. If my understanding is correct, in addition Russian football also has a major issue with racism anyway.
Short of banning Russian athletes from the Olympics, and their other sporting teams from all global competitions, I cannot see any route to bringing the Russian bear to heel in this respect.
Is England (or Britain) whiter-than-white in respect of hooliganism? Probably not. But would a move to ban Russia – and/or even the UK – from major sporting events because of hooliganism achieve its purpose?
It’s all a bit of a mess, isn’t it?