Brendan O’Neill

The biggest civil liberties outrage you’ve never heard of

'Bubble matches' sound quaint. In fact, they trample all over freedom of movement

The biggest civil liberties outrage you've never heard of
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Imagine you bought a ticket for the opera and then a copper told you how you may travel to the opera house. You absolutely may not drive there, he says, nor take public transport, nor walk. You must go on a licensed coach, crammed in with all the other opera-lovers, under the watchful eye of the boys in blue. Yes, that’s right, the police will escort you to the opera, monitor you through the performance, and then escort you home. You got a problem with that?

I imagine you would. You might feel that your right to get from A to B however you please had been curtailed.

Now you know how football fans feel. Across Britain, footie supporters are being told that if they want to attend a game, they must submit to being bundled on to police-monitored coaches and ferried there like criminals. It’s the crime against civil liberties no one wants to talk about.

They’re called ‘bubble matches’, which makes them sound quaint. Believe me, they ain’t. A bubble match occurs when the police, using opaque criteria, decide that a game is Category C — meaning there’s a high risk of violence. Any away fans who fancy attending a ‘bubble match’ are forbidden from making their own way. They must meet at a police-designated pick-up point; get on a specially licensed coach, with coppers on board to ensure they aren’t drinking too much or in some other way getting geared up; and then after the game be dropped back to a police-designated spot near their hometowns.

For some bubble matches, away fans are not allowed actual tickets in advance – they’re given vouchers, which they must exchange for tickets at a rendezvous point, usually a motorway service station in the armpit of nowhere. Why? To make doubly sure that only those who have agreed to be marched to the match by police gain entrance.

Not surprisingly, fans hate bubble matches. Supporters of Wrexham FC are fighting to reverse the police decision that their club’s clash with Chester should be Category C. Wrexham fan Andy Pierce has started an online petition asking fans and others to ‘stand up to these draconian measures’ which place ‘huge restrictions on an individual’s freedom of movement’. At the time of writing only 502 people had signed.

There have been more than 50 bubble matches in Britain over the past ten years, enforced under the Violent Crime Reduction Act of 2006. In March last year, the police ruled that a Leeds-Millwall game was Category C. Any Millwall fans who wanted to attend the game in Leeds had to get on a police-controlled bus in Bermondsey at 5.30 a.m. Even ones from somewhere like Manchester. Yep, instead of just popping over to the stadium, Millwall fans who have the misfortune to live in the north of England would have had to make it to Bermondsey for 5.30 a.m. and allow the police to escort them back. It’s madness. The end result? Only 200 Millwall fans went to the game. The rest boycotted it.

I know what some of you are thinking: ‘Football fans — unlike opera buffs — are known for thuggish behaviour, so bubbling them every now and then is probably OK.’ Well, no, not really. Large-scale football hooliganism is a thing of the past. In the 2012/2013 season, there were 2,456 arrests at all games in England and Wales — and the total attendance was 39 million. Less than 0.01 per cent of fans — about one in every 14,000 — had their collars felt, and many of them will have been arrested for stuff other than violence. More importantly, the fans being bubbled have not committed any crime. Their freedoms are being curtailed on the basis that they might commit a crime. Philip K. Dick’s dystopian vision of ‘precrime’ — the punishment of people for crimes not yet committed — is a reality in the football stadiums of Britain.

The Football Supporters’ Federation has kicked up a storm over bubbling. So have ordinary fans, through launching petitions, boycotting games, and sneaking on to the police coaches placards saying ‘Supporters Not Criminals’. But their complaints have found little echo in allegedly liberal circles.

Footie fans are the lab rats of a new authoritarianism. They are monitored, censored and over-policed in a way that would cause outrage if they were any other group. If we let the authorities treat fans as pre-criminals, what’s to stop them doing it to other people? When they came for the football fans, you said nothing, because you were not a football fan.