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‘The Barmy Army’ - Football: England's Glory?

Solicitors, doctors, bankers, teachers…. What do all these groups have in common?

Well, individuals from these professions have all been arrested at some point for football hooliganism.

Surprising? In England today there is an epidemic of violence associated with football. But why is this? There are many reasons - connected with culture, money, history and nationalism.

Myth number 1:

Football is a working class game, for working class people.

Fact:

Probably more than in any other country in the world, football in England has a national following. Just look at the TV on a Saturday. Much of the afternoon on the two major channels is taken up by football coverage. People from all walks of life watch, play, and go to matches. It is also big business, with top players like Beckham getting paid around $40000 a week, whether they are fit to play or not. Much of the violence associated with football actually comes from the richer supporters. People with prestigious, well-paid jobs often go to football matches just in order to have a fight. It is as if they have the right to lose control and go mad for a while - to forget they are respectable people. This perverse situation even extends to semi-secret uniforms among hooligans. Many fans interested in ultra-violence wear the same checked Burberry clothing - an extremely expensive American brand. Other hooligans are members of the shadowy Combat 18 neo-nazi organisation that has provoked huge race-riots in the north of England.

Myth number 2:

Football hooligans follow a favourite team and especially their national team.

Fact:

Hooligans often don't even watch the match of the team they are supposed to be following. They are more interested in ‘having a go’ at supporters of the opposing team. They travel large distances in order to attack anyone in the vicinity of the ground, or the town centre. Sometimes they even fight their own supporters. Unfortunately this is especially true of the England fans. At the recent Turkey-England Euro2004 qualifier in Sunderland all the fighting was between rival England supporters - in particular between club supporters of Sunderland and Newcastle: two towns about 15 kilometres from each other, both premier division teams with an intense hatred and rivalry.

Myth number 3:

Football violence is unorganised and spontaneous.

Fact:

The police and the Home Office have tried to deal with hooligans travelling to England matches abroad by confiscating the passports of known hooligans and by monitoring ports and airports carefully. Groups of hooligans have recently gone as far as travelling through third countries. For example: if there is a match in Holland, then to avoid getting caught, hooligans have flown to Spain and caught trains to Holland to escape detection. Once near the football ground, rival groups of hooligans even telephone each other by mobile to organise massive fights and to avoid the police. One English club side has even begun to employ former hooligans as security specialists, but this seems to have backfired, as the club in question still has some of the worst violence and racism in the country.

Myth number 4:

Football violence is an English problem.

Fact:

It is true that a lot of club violence takes place in England rather than on the continent. But much of the time it is limited in scope and ferocity. At a recent Uefa match in Turkey between Galtasarai and Leeds, two peaceful Leeds supporters were stabbed to death in the city centre.

Of course, 99% of supporters who travel to games are completely peaceful. 99% of supporters are not racist or neo-nazis. Unlike many European countries, families including women and children make up a large proportion of supporters who travel to games. Hopefully, this kind of tendency will improve the game and discourage hooligans. Hooliganism is not an English problem alone. It is just that English hooligans are perhaps the most visible (partly because of the effective British police campaigns against them). Football will continue to be the ‘beautiful game’, the biggest spectator sport in the world. And Britain will always be the birthplace of this most English game. As the supporters of England like to sing: ‘It's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming. Football's coming home!’ Hopefully, with an improved reputation, England will sometime soon host a major championship again.

© Jeremy Moor

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