Englishmen abroad get treatment they often deserve

Martin Samuel, twice the SJA Sports Writer of the Year, offers some explanation for the distrust of travelling English football fans

We have spent the past week in self-congratulation about the pleasant atmosphere to be found at English football grounds these days when the reality is often intolerance, an undercurrent of menace and, had Frank Lampard not been considerably more nimble than his critics believe, a broken jaw as reward for progress in the FA Cup.

The Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association got closest to commonsense in the aftermath of last week’s mayhem with the subtle admission that not every fan venturing abroad is pure of heart. Their appeal for calm before the second leg read: “The Roma fans at Old Trafford will be, like most of our fans who went to Rome, only there to watch the football.”

The word “most” is the first concession that there may have been a minority in Italy looking for trouble. The saddest irony, dreadfully consistent in incidents involving crowd disturbance, is that it is not the protagonists who find it. The crush at Hillsborough in 1989 was deadliest to those who had arrived early and were standing near the front. At Heysel in 1985, the majority of the 39 killed came from section Z, which should have been reserved for locals and was instead populated by Italians living in Belgium or those buying tickets on the black market. As a result, seven of the dead were not Italian and six were over 50.

Tottenham Hotspur supporters returned from Seville last week with lurid tales of horror, yet anyone who has followed their team abroad knows that for every blameless soul in a wheelchair brutalised by coppers, there will have been another who pushed his behaviour to the limit and got away with it. In the end, we have no control over a baton-wielding, officially endorsed thug masquerading as a law enforcer. What we have control over is us; which is why the accusations and recriminations will get us only so far. Like the United States with its foreign policy, we need to look at why the world has it in for us.

In 1997, some friends of mine went to watch England in Rome. They had a bit of money, worked in the City, followed various London teams (Millwall, Tottenham, West Ham United, Chelsea). Proper fans, though, not the prawn sandwich brigade. Hair very long or very short. The odd fading tattoo (before it became fashionable). Jeans and replica shirts for match day.

The plan was to keep out of trouble. Go to a nice restaurant for lunch. Have a drink and a laugh. Do it in style. We were treated like dirt. The restaurant did not want us and made that obvious. Took the money but regarded the group with contempt. As we left, one of the other diners, a Norwegian from the embassy, quoted the advice Anita gives Maria in West Side Story. “Stick to your own kind,” he said.

Thinking quicker, we should have one-upped him with Ah, But Underneath from Sondheim’s Follies: “In the depths of her interior, were fears she was inferior, and something even eerier, but no one dared to query her superior exterior.” We didn’t, sadly. We suppressed our rage and the desire to conform to perception by smashing the place up.

And then we walked through the city, past areas where England fans had congregated, singing, shouting, drinking, swearing, being boisterous, showing off. The majority were harmless, a few were not, but if you were a citizen of Rome making your way home that afternoon, they would have looked as scary as hell; and still do. As a decade of hindsight now tells me, we must have done in that restaurant. We knew we were no trouble but were alone in that knowledge. This is why, when English fans are attacked on foreign soil, sympathy is so hard to find beyond these shores.

We think hooliganism begins with violence and all else is just rowdiness.

Abroad, the perception of hooliganism extends to drinking all afternoon and chanting in an aggressive manner (and all football chants, even the funny ones, are by the nature of their delivery aggressive), because it is not what the locals do. It frightens them. It would frighten you, too, if you were unfamiliar with it. Maybe it already has.

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