Sunday 18 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Peculiarly violent, stupid young men

England fans gesture at police officers during clashes in Lille, France. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images
England fans gesture at police officers during clashes in Lille, France. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

You want to know why the English football hooligans are the way they are? Check out their national media. As the England supporters made wreck for two days in Marseille, the English media blamed everyone else for their behaviour. The French police were over-reacting, the local football fans were provoking them, UEFA shouldn't have put them in Marseille because of its 'large North African population', though it was never explained why this would pose a particular problem for the English given that North Africa is one of the few places on the planet they didn't colonise back in the day.

Then the Russian fans turned up to provide a more convincing set of scapegoats. English journalists spoke of fights between 'Russian thugs and English fans', described the Russians as 'bastards' and generally took the line that while the English lads 'were no angels' the Russians were 'actually dangerous'.

But the bottom line is that there was plenty of serious trouble in Marseille long before the Russians arrived. The English had fought with police, thrown bottles, sang their silly songs about German bombers and not surrendering to the IRA and generally made a nuisance of themselves. Those who complained about the French police being heavy-handed seemed to feel that the English should have been allowed to act however they liked and turn Marseille into a war zone. To the English media these were 'our boys' doing their thing.

The only problem is that this time the chant of 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough' drew the attention of another group of fans who did think they were hard enough and were very keen to have a go. The Russians took the English at face value and proceeded to administer the kind of comeuppance our neighbours have been looking for these past couple of decades. At which stage the English media decided the French police weren't being heavy-handed enough. The Russians look a pretty horrible crew but there seems little to choose between the two sides.

It was a sad spectacle not least because elsewhere at the tournament fans were mixing freely and having the crack together. Which is as it should be. Gary Lineker's point that England are always involved when this kind of thing happens was a rare exception to the chauvinistic apologias.

Perhaps all the pussyfooting in the English media was motivated to a certain degree by guilt. Because in recent years there has been a tendency to glorify the football hooliganism of the past. On the eve of the championships, for example, The Sun published a load of photos of former hooligans under the headline, 'Amazing portraits of the men who ruled the terraces'. Football hooliganism has become, along with Punk Rock, the Krays and Acid House, one of the favourite subjects for middle-aged English men to be boring about.

There is a cottage industry of semi-literate hooligan memoirs, all 'firms', 'rucks' and 'top boys,' written by saddoes who turn up from time to time on Sky as 'hooligan experts' to provide half-witted analysis. You'd suspect quite a few of the lads making a nuisance of themselves in Marseille have a copy of Danny Dyer's Big Book of Hard Bastards or the like on the shelves at home. They may in fact have thought they were paying tribute to the great hooligan triumphs of the past, like members of the Sealed Knot re-enacting the Battle of Naseby.

Instead they, and we, received a reminder that football hooliganism is nothing to be nostalgic about. It's a horrible pursuit engaged in by peculiarly violent and stupid young men and sometimes it's innocent bystanders who get the worst of it.

When the English cry-bullies emerged blinking through the tear gas, the ludicrous representatives of Europe's unhappiest nation, fed on a diet of xenophobic tripe and imperial nostalgia, their banners stripped away by the Russians, to ask, "Why is everyone picking on us," you could only answer, "because you're assholes."

If you're getting leathered by a bunch of Eastern European teenagers, it might be as well to wait a while before taking on the IRA. Mate.

Sunday Indo Sport

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