The English, who like to think of themselves as the world's most civilized people, have a problem: Many of their soccer fans are considered hooligans and thugs. These days, when someone shouts, "The British are coming, the British are coming," stadium officials brace for potential violence.
The curious case of the English rowdies has drawn special attention from the organizers of the 13th World Cup. Ever since 39 people were killed when English and Italian fans clashed one year ago in Brussels at the European Winners Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, World Cup officials have sought to prevent a similar incident here.
According to Warrick Morris, a British Embassy official in Mexico, British officials have given Mexican authorities a list of "known troublemakers" to prevent their entry into the country. Additionally, undercover policemen have patrolled areas in Monterrey where English fans are staying and, disguised as fans, have been stationed in stadiums where England has played.
Even before the Brussels tragedy, which was largely created when a Heysel Stadium wall collapsed, the English fans' reputation was tainted from repeated acts of hooliganism. After the Brussels riot, English club teams were banned indefinitely from playing on the European continent.
Soccer shouldn't be blamed for the deeds of British rowdies, many observers point out. Rather, their behavior indicates an increasingly divided society in Britain, and the soccer stands are simply a highly visible outlet for the new unrest.
"You will find nothing inherent about the sport of soccer that would provide such violence," said Peter Lancaster, a free-lance British journalist who works as a technical writer for a U.S. firm in Mexico City. "American football is a much rougher game, for example."
"But in Britain, we are breeding a whole population of malcontents, a working class -- an underclass, if you will -- that cannot find work. Unemployment is rising. Crime is rising. The streets are becoming a battlefield, and the soccer field is just another place where the frustration and the anger is vented."
Unemployment in Britain is at 13 percent, and thousands of people in their 20s have not had work since they left school at age 16.
"The violence is not restricted to England," said Jose Luis Roca, a spokesman for Spain's soccer federation. "It is a problem through Europe and South America. We can all point to England, and justly, as a house that is not in order. But we cannot neglect the same type of criminal behavior that is also occurring in our own nations."
So far at this World Cup, despite the poor showing of England (as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland), there have been few problems with British fans.
In Monterrey, 600 miles north of Mexico City, an English fan last week was asked to go home after reportedly having several disputes involving restaurant bills. And at the England-Portugal match, local newspapers photographed several English fans baring their buttocks.
But generally, British and Mexican officials have been pleased. "We think our fans have exhibited exemplary behavior," said Rowena Hopkins, an official at the temporary British consulate in Monterrey. "At matches, we have not seen any problems. Outside of matches, the residents here have been very kind and friendly toward the British visitors."
Guillermo Urquijo, head of World Cup security in Monterrey, said: "Any problem will be shut down before it happens. We have increased our security measures and are prepared to deal with any situation that may occur. Up until now, we are happy."
In an unprecedented move, the three captains of the British teams made a public appeal last week for their fans to stay in line. In a letter published in the English-language Mexico City News, England's Bryan Robson, Scotland's Graeme Souness and Northern Ireland's Sammy McIlroy wrote:
"We need to hear you cheering at our games. We need to see a mass of banners, flags and rosettes -- genuine support on the terraces and not aggressive behavior that might distract us and wreck our game.
"We know that the vast majority of you have no intention of doing anything in Mexico except enjoying the football, the sun and the hospitality of our Mexican hosts. To those few who might be tempted to spoil it for the rest, we say, 'Please give us a break.' "
Despite the blacklist of troublemakers banned from entering Mexico, London's Daily Mail reported last week that several supporters were circumventing authorities. Many fans, instead of flying into Mexico City or Monterrey (where they would need proper entry papers), are crossing the border by bus through Laredo, Tex., according to the Daily Mail. Border guards there reportedly are not apprised of the banned troublemakers.
Michael West, 26, of Birmingham, England, told the Daily Mail: "Laredo has become a staging post . . . None of us has bothered with this football association letter of introduction . . . We will not be out causing trouble. But we will be supporting England."
Regarding the report, Morris said, "That's rubbish. We have not seen any hooligans invading Monterrey. If people were entering the country by that means, they have not been bad eggs."
From all indications, the Mexicans in Monterrey have greeted the English and their team much more warmly than expected. Several stories in Monterrey newspapers had suggested that the estimated 5,000 English visitors might not be welcome.