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The Shame of the Game: Hooligans

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, June 17, 1998; Page C4




PARIS — It's scary when the English hooligans are bearing down on you like the wild animals they are. They came thundering around a corner toward us — three other writers and me — in Cagliari on Sardinia during Italy's 1990 World Cup. We happened to be standing outside the front door of a basilica high on a hill. We tumbled inside, and a wedding was taking place — Davide and Marina were being married. You remember such particulars when the hooligans are involved.

By the time the bride and groom stepped outside to their waiting limousine, the efficient Italian police had rounded up the hooligans in the vicinity of the church. But the major battle continued on a main street below, three hours before the England-Netherlands game. The English, 3,000 strong, were massed and marching from the train station toward Dutch fans, who have their own hooligans. These two sides had made an appointment. But between the two armies — England's by far the larger — were Italian riot police who employed a blockade of trucks, fired tear gas and thrashed the English with batons. The Italians were to be commended: No one died, although there were numerous injuries. Twenty-three English were arrested and Italian police ushered scores out of town.

The more things change, the more they remain the same with the English hooligans. They began rumbling on Sunday in Marseille, the day before their team's first game in the 1998 World Cup against Tunisia. Thirty-five hospitalized, 50 arrested. On game day the violence continued. Rival fans fought on their way into the stadium. But the worst of it occurred about a mile away during the game. Eyewitnesses reported that Tunisians ignited a nasty confrontation with the English at the Prado beach, where a large television screen had been set up for fans who did not have tickets to the game. The fisticuffs and hurling of rocks and bottles, and all objects available, began immediately after England scored its first goal in its 2-0 victory.

An English Football Association official near the scene "deplored the violence," just as the British Embassy in Rome issued a statment in 1990 that the majority of English fans on Sardinia were law-abiding, but that those who had broken the law were being punished. But now in Marseille, like then in Cagliari, shopkeepers and other citizens were terrified. Now and then, men and women trembled and cried. There was debris, and despair, in the dusk.

Many Americans find the depth of passion for soccer in other countries hard to believe. But this is not about the love of the game. This is about the hate attached to it. There is no explanation other than ignorance, often combined with drunkenness and drugs, for the behavior of England's pigs, and that of smaller numbers of troublemakers from other countries, including the Netherlands and Germany. Now Tunisia joins the rabble.

The English hooligans are common criminals drawn to the World Cup because it is a massive gathering place. Their contribution, though, is to spew hate and display a pathetic futility in that their anger is aimless. An Argentine visitor to the games said today, "They are rebels without a cause."

Soccer historically has been marred by tragedies. World Cups have been relatively fortunate so far, plagued by incidents but nothing even close to such fast-moving mob violence as that which occurred at Sheffield in England in 1989, when 95 people were crushed to death by fans pushing forward into an already packed area. But French people, like the Italian people in 1990, are afraid.

The English will play Romania in Toulouse Monday and Colombia June 26 in Lens. I went to Lens Sunday and the people there were joyous. Families, parents with their children, lined the streets watching the Jamaicans and the Croatians celebrating; the train station always is the main gathering place and there the largest party was held. The townspeople looked happy to have all their visitors. They smiled, they waved, they gave directions as best they could despite language barriers at every turn. It couldn't have been a finer day.

But I think of the small girl in the back seat of a stopped car who looked out at me waiting to cross a street and smiled. I wouldn't want her parents and her to come out of their home when the English hooligans come to town. If Lens doesn't shutter its town June 26, then it doesn't know anything about English hooligans. It's a postcard place of 35,000, the smallest site in World Cup history. It's in the north, convenient for the English hooligans. Why of all places would the French organizers schedule England to play there?

The French police should know what they're doing. They reportedly have prepared extensively for trouble. They have met with English authorities about hooligans. Yet foul-ups still occur. How could a French government official during a visit to England before the World Cup extend an invitation to the English to come to France even if they don't have game tickets? They could still watch the games, she said, on large television screens in the cities (although she didn't say it) like the one in Marseille. The French government had to paint her the picture, but of course after the fact.

The United States was spared the English hooligans during the 1994 World Cup because England did not qualify. Had they had to come to the States, they would have been hindered by an ocean to cross and the great distances between the American venues. The hooligans aren't rich; in Italy, their number dwindled as the team progressed because many ran out of money. But they cast dread while they were there. I saw one, using the surrounding crowd as camouflage, pummel an Irish fan without provocation on the way into the England-Ireland game on Sardinia. I saw and felt the hard glare of an English skinhead in the train station in Bologna, and moved swiftly until reaching the other side of a phalanx of police carrying submachine guns.

"Everything would be going well if the hooligans were not among us," the French sports paper L'Equipe said today. "In Marseille, they spoiled everything. Their violence is blind. The party turned into a disaster. During the course of a night of craziness they found somebody to fight with." And among those they fought were the sons of North African immigrants, the two sides meeting up at the old port.

As L'Equipe observed, if there were an easy solution to the problem of hooliganism, it would have been solved long ago. And now that their dirty deeds have been done in Marseille, they already are on the way to Toulouse and will swarm over Lens like a plague. This is the shame of the games, that a minority can threaten to ruin a party of friendship that the world needs.

Rob Hughes, an Englishman, wrote in the Times of London of "the unacceptable recurrence of the English disease." He feared England's export of violence might even lead to a ban on its team. "I wish there were some way to separate the accomplishment of the current team from the specimens who follow it like vermin follow trash," he wrote. "I'm ashamed." He saw English "dogs" burning a Tunisian flag, throwing chairs at passing cars, smashing windows.

Hughes blamed the mayhem on the English government, for not spotting and stopping the villains from leaving the country. Hughes must have had teary eyes when he typed out: "Virgil wrote before the birth of Christ that Britons are 'completely isolated from the whole world.' I'm sorry, France. I'm sorry."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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