Friday, April 06, 2007

The Hooligan Element

Ho hum. Do you ever get the feeling that you're in a time machine? I've had that feeling all week, watching riot police renew old hostilities with that most charming of all the social groups, the travelling English football supporter. Of course, there is a case to be made that no level of boorishness justifies attacking people indiscriminately with batons, but this season has seen a real sea change in terms of the number of incidents involving English clubs abroad, and it's time to detach ourselves from the raw specifics of the events and try to figure out what can be done to prevent any further repeats. In the old days, it was easy to work out exactly what had happened, but trying to figure out the truth amongst the rumour, counter-rumour, propaganda and accusations isn't as easy as it used to be.

There is no question that the press release that Manchester United issued to their supporters was ill-worded (as has been noted elsewhere, it made the fundamental mistake of mistaking ultras as merely hooliganism, amongst other things), although there is a case for pointing out that, with the benefit of hindsight, much else of what they said was correct. Much has been made of the United supporters' arrival in Rome, and their congregating in the city centre, flag waving and drinking would, in the ultras' eyes, be regarded as something akin to an act of war, but I simply don't accept this as a justification for random acts of violence against the English in Italy. The Premiership is the most-watched league in the world. Italian ultras are as aware as anybody else that carrying flags, singing songs and wearing replica shirts is simply part of the culture of English football, and nothing more than that. It's not an excuse for stabbing people. Having seen the footage of events within the stadium, what is noticeable is that all of the riot police are on the United side of the divide between the two sets of supporters. United supporters shouldn't have reacted in the way that they did to the provocation of the Roma supporters, but this is no excuse for the indiscriminate baton charging of the Italian police. Consider this thoughtful missive on the Guardian's Sport Blog on the subject:

"I wish we could get away from this silly, outdated stereotype of Italian cities and the Italian people as uniformly sophisticated art lovers who occasionally indulge in a civilised glass of chianti with the evening meal. It is complete nonsense, as a trip around any Italian university town will make abundantly clear. The tanked up locals are just as obnoxious as the tanked up foreigners, and frankly, any urination in the streets by foreigners is just a drop in the almighty ocean or dog and human excrement already present. As for the comment on vandalising art works, well, I despair: believe me, the Italian teenager needs no lessons from anyone on defacing statues and buildings with marker pens."

One gets the feeling (with previous incidents involving Middlesbrough last season, and West Ham this season) that perceived English drunken yobbishness is now being used as an excuse for the behaviour of, well, anyone that isn't English. Having said that, though, the behaviour of a section of Spurs' support in Seville last night was indefensible. The police may have been heavy-handed, but ripping up and throwing chairs would seem to indicate something more nefarious at play. Also, there has been no suggestion of any guilt on the part of the home supporters.

English and Italian clubs are skating on very thin ice here. Feyenoord have already been thrown out of the UEFA Cup this season for crowd trouble which followed them on a trip to France to play Nancy at the end of last year. I would be less than surprised if Spurs were similarly ejected from the competition. With Manchester United, the situation is slightly different. Although their supporters hardly covered themselves in glory, they are, by and large, the aggrieved party. Having said that, though, they've already been involved for what happened in Lille in the last sixteen, so any finding of guilt on their part could have serious repercussions. The Italians, though, have some serious introspection to do. I simply do not accept that the act of wearing a shirt and having had a couple of beers is, in itself, suitable provocation justify being beaten up, having a bottle thrown at you, or being stabbed. If things carry on as they are, it's a matter of time before more innocent people are killed out there or, worse still, that Italy has its own Heysel.


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