It took less than a week for Euro 2012 to be marred by scenes of fans fighting.
Amazingly, they weren’t English. In this case, they were Polish and Russian, who seem to have a number of fans hellbent on competing for the title of biggest yobs of the tournament.
We’d already had more than one incident of Poles directing monkey chants at black players, while stewards had been attacked by Russians.
So it was probably only a matter of time until they decided to have a little go at each other.
What a change it made!
To be fair, it’s not England fans at the matches who tend to go in for thuggish behaviour, but usually people some considerable way a way from the actual football action.
The last occasion I remember when that was not the case was in 1995, at Lansdowne Road in Ireland, when a friendly between the Republic and England was targeted by the neo-Nazi Combat 18, in conjunction with the Chelsea Headhunters.
In that case, they didn’t care who they injured – England fans were hurt as well as Irish (an innocent English fan was speared by flying wood; an elderly Irishman died of a heart attack) – and ‘calling cards’ were left to make it quite clear as to the political nature of the riot.
It was hardly surprising, then that before Euro ’96, there were fears of violence at matches – in particular, rumours were doing the rounds of far-right thugs intending to start a scrap at Villa Park, during the Scotland-Netherlands clash.
That turned out to be a boring match – but wonderfully good-humoured. As, indeed, was every match I attended – 13 of the 31.
The atmosphere at Wembley was generally good – when England beat the Netherlands 4-1 (a shock result) it was like a big party, with the soundtrack song of that summer, Three Lions on a Shirt, being sing gustily for ages afterwards.
Travelling up and down the country to matches, it was a delight to see how English football fans, attending matches involving teams other than their own, acted as super hosts to our guests in the country.
When trouble did start, it was miles away from the actual football: in Trafalgar Square, as England went out on penalties to Germany in the semi-final.
Mind, the imbeciles in question didn’t even wait for the final result before starting a fight – which probably tells you something of their real motivation.
And then there was the murder of a Russian student miles away from London, with police saying they thought he’d been targeted by someone ‘thinking’ he was German.
When Churchill talked of ‘fighting them on the beaches’, he probably wasn’t thinking of a bunch of boozed-up idiots smashing up a holiday resort in Portugal during the 2004 tournament.
And some of the incidents that happened back in England itself were even worse, with a Portuguese community centre being targeted while it was full of women and children.
But the overwhelming majority of fans don’t behave in anything like such a way. And the same goes for other countries where there have been histories of football-related violence. England is most certainly not alone.
When violence does break out, though, there seem to be – at the very simplest level – two basic types.
• The ‘I ♥ fighting’ brigade, sometimes fueled by beer and provided with the ‘excuse’ by the tribalism of football.
• The nationalists and right-wing extremists who see it as war by another means to prove their and their country’s innate superiority.
Obviously, there’s a bit of overlapping goes on.
And to clarify: I’m not talking about patriotism – love of one’s country – but a belief that one’s country (and therefore oneself) are inherently better than anyone else.
Funnily enough, deputy prime minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was on the subject of extremism recently, pleading with European electorates not to do anything ‘silly’, by voting in extremists.
Well, Nicky boy, politicians like you who help to drive people to extremes. How is austerity affecting you and yours – felt the impact of rising bus fares yet?
The solution to the latter is largely political.
The solution to the former, however, is different.
Now in the case of Britain, we’ve been a boozy, brawling bunch for centuries – even the women. No matter what some commentators pretend, it’s not new.
When the Channel 4 programme, Time Team, did an excavation of a Blitz-hit area near where I live, they found knuckle dusters and goodness knows what else in the buried remains of old houses.
Read some Dickens. Look at some Hogarth. Even Virginia Woolf, in the 1920s novel, Mrs Dalloway, describes a character passing a pub on Tottenham Court Road where there are drunken women brawling outside.
Generally speaking, if people voluntarily want to beat seven shades of shit out of each other, then why not let them? Well, certainly if they’re legally adults.
The problem is if innocent people get caught up in it. And there’s also the small matter of who picks up the pieces.
In terms of the former, it’s easier now that most fighting doesn’t occur anywhere near actual stadiums. But if it does, it can be difficult to get out of the way.
The nearest I’ve come to getting caught up in anything – and indeed even seeing anything, in over 30 years of going to football from non-league level to the Euro ’96 final – was at Manchester City a couple of years ago, when the visitors were Birmingham, and the Birmingham Zulus decided to celebrate their 25th anniversary by starting a riot.
It spilled right out into the carpark and onto the main road, where I found myself skirting a line of police with batons and dogs.
Now I wasn’t scared, but I saw and heard people who were, including elderly women and small children. Football is not just for men – or even just for the few men who actually fancy a fight.
And in the north of England particularly, women have followed the game for a long time, just as they have with Rugby League.
Of course, in terms of the latter point, then given the current privatisation of so much of the public services that do most of the picking up the pieces, it’ll be more profit for private companies.
Except where, as in the case of the NHS, such services haven’t been cherry-picked by the private healthcare providers.
As only a slight aside: we fill people up with crap food and drink, stuffed with chemicals, and wonder that they get a bit aggressive. Why?
Given that it’s generally accepted that children’s behaviour can be negatively impacted by chemicals in food – preservatives etc. Given the amount of chemicals in much of the beer (and ‘fast food’) consumed here, why on earth are we surprised at levels of anti-social behaviour in town centres at the weekends in particular?
Mind, it doesn’t just need bad beer and crap food. As proven by my own reaction to arrogant, fuckwitted cyclists on the damned pavements. I need neither cheap beer nor crap food to want to smash up their shitty bikes.
So perhaps we could have little corrals outside football stadia or in town centres for those who want to fight to be able to do so? Participants could sign disclaimers first – and prove that they have additional insurance to cover any health care required.
While we’re at it, we could also have some standing areas in stadia for those who want to stand – done properly, it is safe, as shown in the German Bundesliga, for instance.
But back to the brawling. At least until England go out of the current tournament on penalties in the quarter finals, doesn’t it make a nice change to be able to finger point at naughty people from other nations?