CAGLIARI, ITALY, JUNE 12 -- They fought at the train station after the game Monday night, dozens of English "hooligans" matched against a local Italian youth gang known as the Ultras. The English troublemakers included the Arsenal Gooners; an Ultra swung a chain above his head and whacked an Englishman.
England and Ireland had played to a 1-1 tie at Sant 'Elia Stadium here on the southern tip of the island of Sardinia. But the game didn't matter to the goons Italian police are trying to control. An English fan pulled a knife. Police moved in and arrested four Ultras.
But potentially worse violence looms. The Dutch soon will be on the way for their game Saturday with the English. And some English gang members are promising a battle with Dutch rowdies after a boat carrying Dutch fans arrives Friday at Sardinia's northern port of Olbia from Genoa. Cup officials are fearful of fans from both countries.
The rowdy behavior of many English soccer fans has caused grave concern in their home country and throughout Europe for much of the past decade, resulting in the deaths and numerous injuries of bystanders and a call for the banning of English teams and fans from European play.
Some 3,200 members of the Italian police and security forces already are on Sardinia. Italian officials have issued repeated warnings against violence, and the Italian and English governments have worked together for months to try to prevent it.
Before the 1-1 tie, a large group of English fans attacked some of Ireland's fans with fists and bottles. An Irishwoman, attempting to run to safety, was struck by a moped and suffered facial injuries. For her and a number of other Irish, the glorious tie was ruined.
Ireland's moral victory was accompanied by unrestrained chanting and singing, even during a cold downpour. The tie left Ireland jubilant, the Star in Dublin reporting it to be "a dream come true." The newspaper could take delight in the English letting the tall, good-humored Jack Charlton get away to become Ireland's coach. "Jack's heroes humiliate England," the Star said. "Now, Jack's singing in the rain. Shake them, Jack."
It would be so much fun here, under a blue sky, next to a blue-green sea, if soccer alone were involved. Instead, with threats of violence, visitors find this normally quaint vacation hideaway both depressing and frightening.
Fans who have come here strictly for the soccer probably are wondering how such a place so obviously meant for peace could become so fearful. Flying south and low on the way in from Pisa, you could see a rocky land dotted by villages. Shepherds tended flocks of sheep and goats.
On landing, you saw the English at the airport, the skinheads wearing obscene T-shirts, beer on their breath. You sensed almost immediately that the World Cup-crazed English who have streamed into this provincial place have changed the landscape, at least in this city of about 220,000 (and only 180 taxis); temporarily, maybe, but tumultuously.
The lone taxi waiting at the airport? That was for the wife of England's coach. Her flight had been delayed.
Getting to the stadium on time was not an easy task, and an English photographer, David Jacobs, was worried, hoping fervently the English fans would behave themselves.
"If there's trouble out here, it will be a long time before we can play in Europe again," he said. For five years, England has been barred from the major competitions on the continent because of its hooligans. The night would be a test of the English fans as well as the English players.
The sights at the stadium were enough to make you forget the gorgeous landscapes, the harbor that vaguely resembles Monte Carlo, the trivial hassles of traffic. Police carried submachine guns, others sat poised on horseback. Dogs pulled at leashes, sniffing for trouble. Shouting erupted at the gates as ticket holders considered suspicious-looking by Italian police were frisked. Police helicopters circled.
There would be no problems among the players. They know each other well, and Charlton is the English-Irish link. Speaking of soccer, an English bobby said recently in London: "There's no great animosity between England and Ireland. The feeling is, it's both of us against the continent."
Given the English fans' history, Italy is taking every precaution, banning alcohol sales in the Cagliari area starting 24 hours before a game until 8 the following morning. Still, the English -- and Irish -- fans have stocked up. But even the drunkest of English hooligans should have been able to detect the look of business on the faces of Italian police massed around the stadium in three separate circles of security.
Italian and English authorities have studied the violence potential for five months. Britain's minister of sport, Colin Moynihan, has visited Italy several times, offering ideas of what to expect.
The Italians have worked diligently to make certain rival fans are seated separately. The English and green-clad Irish were. But such success is not always possible with tickets sold on the streets.
"If people come to Italy for violence, then the police will be very tough," Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the chairman of Italia '90, has warned. And the police act as if they understand his message.
About 3,000 policemen have been stationed around Cagliari. They're housed on two ships and in a castle. Among them are National Football Intelligence Unit spotters from England, who know most of the notorious hooligans.
Sporadic outbreaks of violence have taken place at other tournament sites, but where the English play is considered the hottest spot. Far from the mainland, the English have been banished to this island for their three first-round games and potentially the biggest troublemaker of all Cup games here Saturday night.
Saturday night, the English players will make their stand against an outstanding Dutch team that includes possibly the game's greatest player, Marco van Basten.
What's more, the Dutch have the flamboyant Ruud Gullit, who will be trying to play back to his 1988 form, when he helped win the European championship for Holland. In April and July of last year, he underwent operations on his right knee. The lethal van Basten, Gullit and Gullit's Milan-based partner, Frank Rijkaard, are a trio that makes this game against the English, their pride wounded by Ireland, a potential classic.
No hotel room is available for miles around. Cagliari today settled in uneasily for the wait until game day, hoping there will be no English-Dutch brawls at the stadium. Two hooligan leaders suggest trouble is more likely to occur on the mainland if England advances to the second round. (If England doesn't advance, the players may have to take a cruise out of Cagliari's Gulf of Angels until things cool off at home.)
A hooligan leader named Colin Ward said earlier in the Italian weekly Epoca that violence may come in the more accessible Italian cities. Another hooligan, identifed pseudonymously as Gilles, was quoted in the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera as saying, "If England progress, it will be easier to follow the team."
Another unidentified hooligan tried to give an explanation of what drives him and others. He said he likes violence because "it's great to be frightened and to conquer your fear and make a bit of trouble."
With deep concern in her voice, a woman who works for the World Cup organizing committee, Italia '90, expressed her fears. She did not want to be identified, saying, "I do not seek fame."
But she has spent time in London, studying at the British Museum. Some behavior at English stadiums has appalled her, and it appears inevitable that the English will make the mainland. "We as a people are very emotional people, but the emotions are more level," she said. "The English emotions can soar to unbelievable heights because of soccer."
At the security checkpoint in Pisa, the three skinheads were stopped and searched thoroughly, to the obvious relief of other passengers waiting in the lounge. One of the three was taken aside by Italian police, his belongings inspected thoroughly as the people in the lounge got to their feet and watched anxiously.
"Crazy people," an Italian man said.
And the troublemakers among the Dutch?
"Similarly," he said.
The three were passed through -- and passed yet one more inspection of everyone on the tarmac before boarding the plane.
On Saturday, security promises to be even tighter in Cagliari, if possible. It was unclear tonight what plan of action the police have in mind for the weekend. One thing is for sure: Tensions will be high. If only trouble can be averted. If only it could be just a game.