Lee Wellings: Hooligan threat still exists

Football Hooliganism never really was ‘the English disease’ alone. The English were just good at it and, perhaps, the best at reporting it.

But English football has had another uncomfortable reminder it still exists in a nation whose reputation for trouble at football was once ‘world infamous’.

This season was only three days old when football fans and horses were back in the news. Preston fans invaded the pitch and charged at their local rivals Blackpool in a League Cup match. Police on horseback managed to keep control, but a steward was accidentally trampled under one of the horses and was lucky to avoid serious injury.

Last season ended with Millwall fans, the most notorious English club for hooliganism, disrupting an FA Cup semi-final defeat at Wembley by fighting. While a Newcastle fan very publicly punched a horse as frustration at their defeat against Sunderland boiled over. Classy.

An English newspaper famous for its middle class, reactionary agenda has already jumped on the issue asking “How long before someone is stabbed?”.

And yes, it can seem rather misguided and old fashioned to talk of English football having a potential hooliganism problem. It always feels as though mere mention of the subject is ‘stirring it up’.

But no-one at the English Football Association will be complacent about these sporadic outbreaks. The only surprise about a pitch invasion in August during a local derby between rivals on a warm summer evening was that we were surprised fans were capable of it. There will be other high risk matches that will need the same level of policing and readiness for trouble.

For over 20 years fighting in and around stadiums slipped away. With improved ground facilities and seating, and more affluent crowds football, many argue the game has lost some of its soul – but what it did lose much of the anger than raged under the surface..

But difficult economic times have helped create an edge of menace and football is unlikely to be completely unscathed. The causes of football hooliganism are pretty clear. Disaffected young men looking for a point in their life, a cause, trying to give themselves an identity, some respect, by showing ‘bravery and courage’. The desire to fight, to not take a step back, to take on opposition fans, the police.

It is captured most starkly in a stunning BBC ‘Panorama’ documentary from 1977 on hooligans that can easily be found on the internet. In the 1970s and 80s many England fans travelling abroad were intent on causing trouble. From skirmishes in major tournaments to the dark day of Heysel 1985.

Sadly I have covered plenty of football hooliganism over the years. I have had the opportunity at times to watch the psychology of groups of hooligans evolve throughout an evening in a city centre before or after a game. The bravado grows with the alcohol level. It’s a form of showing off that is simian in nature. You feel you are like David Attenbrough, the great broadcaster on nature, as he quietly watches the wildlife. It can be frightening at its worst yes. But it is actually mainly sad. There is more than a touch of tragi-comedy about the attempts of hooligans to justify their actions.

During the last two decades, while football became a more civilised process in England, football hooliganism continued to fester in many other European countries. From the organised violence that peppers Italian football fixtures, to out and out brutality in Eastern European countries, to thugs in the Netherlands and Germany still up for a fight. And in France as a backdrop of Paris St Germain’s trophy celebrations. The examples are dotted all over the European map.

At times in South America it’s been much worse. We’ve all seen the games in Brazil and Argentina where players have joined in or started the fighting. Referees chased around grounds.

In Africa there has been some shocking large scale violence. The tragedy of 74 deaths in a football stadium in the Egyptian city of Port Said had a political backdrop. The Senegal v Ivory Coast riot last year saw disorder on a serious scale, but scenes were not completely unfamiliar to vital games in the region. Only last week more than 130 Moroccan fans were jailed for football-related violence. Such incidents provide an important context when dealing with hooliganism in Western Europe.

The worst violence I’ve every covered was pitch side at a Poland v England qualifier in Katowice in 1997 where the game continued while supporters battered each other with weapons and a steady flow of blood soaked fans were stretchered away. All of them Polish. The England fans had been policed well enough to be kept away. These were ‘local disputes’.

The English disease? The horrible irony is that Italian supporters are regularly stabbed. Hooliganism is a world problem and it happens to be worse outside of England.

In Germany the hooligan problem is more advanced. They are at the next stage. Enough for new measures called the ‘secure stadium experience’ on such issues as policing, surveillance and the use of flares in grounds. But the problems continue. Interesting that we didn’t hear too much about this when praising Germany clubs in the Champions League in the Spring.

Whether Germany, England or elsewhere, it’s clear football still has a problem. And I genuinely don’t believe its one of its own making. Former England winger John Barnes has been the most astute commentator on racism, reminding people that football genuinely reflects society’s ills. It is also true of hooliganism.

So there should be no complacency about hooliganism in English football after the quiet years. While this should never be exaggerated my senses are that it’s slipping back into football in the home of the world’s most popular league.

Not an epidemic or a crisis, yet, but not to be underestimated.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at ten.a1669751592reeza1669751592jla@s1669751592gnill1669751592ew.ee1669751592l1669751592. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport