Our soccer fans are by no means the most thuggish in the world, says Rod Liddle, and he’ll glass any smug Scotch git who says they are
A rather smug, bearded Scotsman upbraided me the other day when I was queuing for a drink at one of those left-of-centre London wine bars where the staff look at you with opprobrium if you order the house Chardonnay. His complaint was with something I’d written about the Euro 2004 football championship — to the effect that it was OK, for 90 minutes, to loathe the opposition for their real or imagined national characteristics. It made the game more fun, I’d argued.
‘Don’t you realise that you are encouraging English football hooliganism?’ he said, stressing the word ‘English’, of course. He was smug and sententious, something I’ve never seen before in a man holding a bowl of Twiglets. And then, with weary inevitability, he added the following: ‘It’s only the English, you know, who equate football with warfare. Nobody else does.’ And so saying away he went, to munch upon an oversalted snack fit only for a six-year-old.
His argument is rot, obviously, but it is nonetheless very ‘au currant’. And not just among those jealous and embittered Celtic brothers of ours from Shannon to Wick via Aberystwyth. One might expect the Scots and the Welsh and the Irish to yearn for a) England’s swift elimination from the tournament and, perhaps privately, b) for English hooligans to cause as much trouble as possible in Portugal — partly in order to assuage the unbearable and unpalatable truth that their own national teams were too inept to qualify for 2004 and partly because, in a more general sense, they seem to hate us anyway and revel in our discomforts. An English humiliation both on the field and also on the narrow, frowsy streets of Oporto would raise the rafters of every bar in Dublin and Glasgow. It would bring glad cheer and, I daresay, more smugness and sententiousness.
But strangely it is an argument which has taken root among our own politicians and in our daily newspapers. Never mind that the biggest punch-up so far at Euro 2004 was between those old adversaries the Dutch and the Germans — a punch-up curiously under-reported over here. Never mind either that there is more xenophobia and racism on the terraces at Lazio and Dynamo Zagreb than you would ever hear at an English football ground. Never mind that a single stadium full of Turkish supporters generates more hatred and real, terrible violence than an entire year of England fans ‘on tour’. It is still glibly assumed that hooliganism and, concomitantly, the equating of football with warfare are the ‘English Disease’, something for which we are singularly responsible and must therefore carry the can. And as a result, any England fan who finds himself smacked unconscious by a Portuguese copper wielding a four-foot nightstick, or banged up in a Lisbon cell without recourse to legal representation, has got what he deserves, regardless of the circumstances. And if, through some regrettable loophole in the extradition Act, an English fan finds himself unaccountably freed from a Portuguese prison, he can expect the Home Secretary to assure the rest of us that the full weight of the state will be brought to bear in order to bang him up again once he returns, whatever the paucity of the evidence against him. (Mr Blunkett, one feels, is beginning to take the notion of populism a little too far.)
The problem is that we have started to believe the propaganda. We beat our breasts whenever England plays a game of football abroad — and the script is written before the fans even alight from their easyJet aeroplanes. It does not matter that there has not been a single serious incidence of hooliganism overseas at any England club or national football game over the last five or six years: we are guilty, and that’s an end to it.
The British police have undoubtedly done an excellent job in rooting out that tiny hardcore of psychopathic troublemakers who once infested the terraces. They have been especially adept with regard to the current tournament in Portugal. Would that their Dutch and German counterparts had been equally astute. And thank the Lord that the Turks and the Serbs aren’t there, too.
But what galls me is the prevalent notion that hooliganism is somehow rooted in the English psyche, along with warm beer and an anti-intellectual predisposition — and this determination to see football as a sort of payback for Gallipoli, or the Peninsula War, or the Norman Conquest.
What this misguided perception misses is the humour: when England fans cup their hands over their eyes to imitate early aviator goggles and hum the Dambusters theme tune at German fans, it is, primarily, for a laugh. They do not really think that a goal from Michael Owen in some way reinforces the VE Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square. Nor is this one-way traffic. The Croatian football team, before England’s magnificent dispatch of them on Monday evening, were at pains to stress that a fighting warlike nature was genetically embedded into the soul of every Croat (along, presumably, with a predisposition to fascism and anti-Semitism). It was the Scottish fans who rather wittily barracked the Brazilians over their non-existent GDP six years ago. Every country reaches for what it has to hand in order to cow or mock the opposition; England fans are far from alone in this and it is nothing to do with the English ‘colonial mentality’.
England has never gone to war over the result of a football match, as have the Dominican Republic and Honduras, for example. (Although part of me wishes that we had in 1986, when Argentina cheated us out of a place in the final stages of the World Cup with an illegal goal scored by that cocaine-addicted genius, Diego Maradona. And then again a week or so ago, when the French achieved the most undeserved victory thanks to a stupid Steven Gerrard backpass and an incompetent referee.)
Every country in the world, transfixed by the performance of its national team — and other rival national teams — becomes a little overwrought, and eventually things start to lose their proper perspective. Otherwise, why would every Scotsman, Welshman and Irishman have been cheering for Switzerland, Portugal, Croatia and France in the last week or so, were it not for a visceral reaction against the noble team these countries were playing? And a visceral reaction based not upon the character of the English side, of Rooney, Owen, Beckham et al., but of the English race and the multitude of real or imagined iniquities which are believed to have been perpetrated by it. The people of every nation state allow these boundaries to slide from time to time: and the truth is, English fans are no worse than the rest.