LONDON, JUNE 13 -- The West Germans did not need a Teutonic Paul Revere to tell them the British were coming last weekend. They were already watching for the bloodshot red of British eyes.
More than 8,000 British soccer fans, an estimated 500 of them hard-core troublemakers known to police here, descended for the European Nations Cup soccer finals being held this month in eight German cities.
In Stuttgart yesterday, England lost its opening match to Ireland, 1-0, leading some of the more militant "fans" to take to the streets for an orgy of drinking and hooliganism that ended with 89 Britons arrested, and serious injury to at least one passer-by. Many not engaged in destruction staggered belligerently through the streets, giving Nazi salutes, and often dressed only in Union Jack underwear.
West German police said they were ready for the violence and easily contained it. But they reportedly have assigned up to 1,500 officers to head off trouble Wednesday in Duesseldorf, when England plays the Netherlands in a match that will eliminate one of them from the tournament.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose sports minister was on the scene in Stuttgart, was said today to be "very concerned" about the damage being done to Britain's reputation and is expecting an urgent report on events there. In an initial response to reporters this morning, Sports Minister Colin Moynihan called the hooliganism "a cancer on the back of British football."
There seems little that London can do to stem the activities of the British travelers, who are considered the scourge of continental Europe. Civil libertarians have argued against lifting of passports.
Although soccer violence is not unique to the British, it has become practically institutionalized here, with stadiums packed with police, and some urban clubs allowing only home-team spectators. International attention was focused on the problem in 1985, when 39 fans, most of them Italians, died in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels after being attacked by Britons in the stands.
The Heysel disaster resulted in professional English clubs, as distinct from the national teams in the cup contests, being banned indefinitely from European play. The European Football Association is to review the ban this month.
Violence at sporting events is only part of the problem. From the far side of the English Channel, to the Mediterranean coast, the visiting British have a fast-growing reputation for drinking too much, dressing like slobs, insulting the locals and damaging property.
More than 27 million Britons -- half of the population -- are expected to travel abroad for business or pleasure this year, many of them to European sunspots on package tours that provide plane fare and hotel rooms for about the average weekly wage here. Most, officials here emphasize, make no trouble and are welcome. But a highly visible minority is causing headaches for overseas British diplomatic missions and embarrassment for Thatcher's government.
They are the "yobs," slang for boys, spelled backward. Sociologists here try endlessly to classify them, some blaming their loutishness and love of vandalism on deprivation caused by the division between rich and poor that has grown more stark during the Thatcher years. Others, including Thatcher, blame the "permissiveness" of the 1960s, the welfare society, and the lowering of family standards.
But yobs are both young and not so young, employed and unemployed, and just as likely to be educated as illiterate. Some shave their heads, in the "skinhead" tradition of a decade ago. Others look like choirboys. What they have in common is an idea of fun that usually includes massive quantities of alcohol and trouble.
According to a spokesman for the Foreign Office, consular officials responsible for places such as the southern Spanish coast and the Balearic Islands are overstretched as the number of Britons in foreign jails has increased fourfold to nearly 2,000 in eight years.
To help head off problems this summer, the government has produced a 15-second television commercial warning Britons abroad not to count on government help if they do not "behave themselves." The idea, said a Foreign Office spokesman, is to make sure they realize that, while those legitimately in need of aid will be helped, British consulates will not concern themselves with "scroungers, wanglers or sheer bloody time wasters."
Officials and those in the tourism business in Spain, where 7 million Britons are expected this summer, profess particular weariness with hooligan antics, including shattered windows, broken furniture tossed in swimming pools and brawling. Some have complained that they would rather have a "better class" of British tourist, or none.
Foreign Office Minister Timothy Eggar has been sent to tour the Spanish coast, "to show the flag, to show the Spaniards we're serious" about addressing the situation, the spokesman said.
Today, Eggar strolled through Benidorm, one of the most popular holiday spots for the British, where "Olde English Pubs" and all-night discos line the waterfront, and drinks cost only half as much as at home."The British people come to Spain only for one thing," a Benidorm police officer surveying Eggar's tour told television reporters. "To drink."