England at the World Cup: Where Are The Hooligans In South Africa?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, it would be hard to imagine a World Cup including England that did not include reports of actual incidents of hooliganism, blown up hysteria about hooligans running wild, and a general frenzy surrounding England fans.

In 1990, ahead of the World Cup in Italy, the Guardian wrote that “Britain is the only country which sends a government minister around telling other countries how dreadful his fellow citizens are.”

England fans — even if always a minority — were trouble, and reports of hooliganism sold newspapers in England. Lots of them. That’s why British tabloid newspaper journalists went around trying to foment trouble, as Pete Davies tells it in his brilliant account of Italia ’90, All Played Out: “There was a story going round in Monterrey, there was a man from The Sun going round with a brick tied up in a note that said the brick was from England. And he’d go into bars offering fans a couple of hundred quids’ worth of pesos to put it through a shop window.”

True or not, I doubt Sun journalists are bothering to try anything like that in South Africa. Hooliganism is off the front pages.  South Africa has so far not had a single reported incident involving an English football hooligan as far as I can tell. As the Guardian reported yesterday:

Kevin Miles, head of international relations at the Football Supporters’ Federation and organiser of the fan embassies in every city hosting England, said there had been no reports of any problems at any of England’s games so far.

The Independent explains this by painting a picture of England fans in South Africa as a class above your usual fare, in a rather snobbish take on English travelling support from last week entitled Smarmy Army:

Something has happened at the World Cup and it goes beyond goalkeeping errors. The England fan – that much-feared smirking lout best kept the opposite side of a riot shield – has been transformed. In South Africa, he is a gent and though he still orders pints, he is likely to be seen with a plate of tapas on the side.

Hedge fund trader Mark Thomson, 33, was delicately tucking into a light lunch at Cape Town’s Wafu restaurant yesterday, watching the sun sparkle on the Atlantic in the posh Mouille Point area. “England fans? I haven’t seen many. There was a bit of chanting at the Waterfront shopping centre earlier. But generally everyone is very quiet and well-behaved,” he said.

Thomson has come from London with a friend to see three matches in nine days, including tonight’s England clash with Algeria. It will also be attended by Princes William and Harry, the cast of a new BBC drama Outcasts being filmed in Cape Town and Boris Johnson, the London mayor.

The Independent explains this transformation in England’s travelling support by focusing on the distance to South Africa and the cost involved in getting there, resulting in a different class of fan going to the World Cup this time.

But the article fails to mention a key fact that counters that as a primary explanation for the good behaviour so far: the previous World Cup was held in Germany, a close hop from England, well before the recession, and with plenty of beer to be had. Yet incidents involving English fans were also few and far between, despite having the best attended games by travelling support, with over 100,000 England fans present in Germany. Deutsche-Welle reported on the change at the time:

“The FA (English Football Association) has done a lot but most of the hard work has been put in by the fans,” said Jack Walker, a fan from Manchester who’ll be in Germany for the duration of the World Cup with his 14 year-old son Ben. “We were just sick of the nutters who were giving us a bad name. We now make the effort to respect people and places more, make it more of a family event. I’m not worried to take my boy to see England these days. Five years ago, I would have thought twice about going on my own.”

After England’s exit from the 2006 World Cup, the Washington Post reported that:

England fans who carried a bad reputation based on past hooliganism are being seen in a new light not just by Germans, but by the world, said Kevin Miles, the international coordinator of the Football Supporters’ Federation.

“It’s been an extraordinarily positive contribution made to the tournament as a whole by English supporters,” he said.

In fact, it’s now been a decade since England fans have been involved in a major incident of hooliganism. So what has happened to England’s hooligans?

England, World Cup, South AfricaThere are many reasons for this sea-change in the perception and behaviour of England fans abroad. One obvious one is the focus of policing on prevention: 3,143 known hooligans were required to hand in their passports in May to the police in England. The fact is, there weren’t that many hardcore hooligans to begin with, at least as a proportion of England’s massive support. Stopping many of the few making it out of the country sure helps, and means many who kicked off trouble before aren’t there, either because they’re banned or they’ve simply grown too old to be doing hooliganism any longer.

But more than a clampdown by the authorities, football fans have organised themselves to stamp out hooliganism, and route English support in positive manners. Supporters like Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), mentioned above, spent many months preparing for the World Cup, including a trip out there earlier this year in preparation. They work to ensure fans feel welcomed as guests, rather than arriving as presumed criminals: curiously enough, this appears to have the effect of making fans behave more like guests and less like criminals. For example, Football Supporters Europe has set-up “Fans Embassies” in host nations to provide support and advice for travelling fans:

The German and English Fans’ Embassy teams, both members of Football Supporters Europe (FSE), will provide comprehensive advice, information and support service to England and German fans at the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. Fans’ Embassies are important tools to reduce feelings of exclusion and insecurity among travelling football supporters. The English and German Fans’ Embassy teams can look back at 20-years of experience: The English Fans’ Embassy, run by the independent Football Supporters Federation (FSF), and the German Fans’ Embassy team, organised by the Coordinating office of German Fan Projects (KOS), offer their services for the ninth time at major tournaments.

The English Fans’ Embassy will be run by a team of ten volunteer FSF members travelling to South Africa and providing assistance to their fans. The English Fans’ Embassy will operate a 24-hour telephone helpline service and produce and distribute the free fanzine “Free Lions” for each game, containing guide material and up-to-date information on tournament arrangements, to complete the 150 page full colour fans’ guide book already available and distributed for free among all England supporters. Working in close collaboration with staff from the British High Commission, the Fans’ Embassy team will use the latest technology and social networking communications, including Twitter feeds, Facebook updates and a free SMS text message service to provide the most up-to-date info on the tournament for the English fans.

The concept of Fans’ Embassies has been established and continuously further developed by several Fans’ Embassy initiatives and FSE members in the past 20 years. The main idea is to openly and warmly welcome football supporters at major tournaments and to treat them respectfully as guests rather than a problem, and offer a wide range of interesting activities. The Fans’ Embassy service includes a quick and unbureaucratic help in the case of emergency ranging from support in case of the loss of passports to legal advice with the side effect to prevent further problems and tensions. Fans’ Embassies have been backed by UEFA, FIFA and the EU. In South Africa both, the English and the German Fans’ Embassies will play their crucial role to date, helping supporters overcome cultural differences and providing safety advice, all in cooperation with local and national, and international football bodies and authorities.

On Sunday, of course, England play Germany, a game that in the past would have the host nation in a panic. South Africa have identified it as a high-profile game, but the change in expectations that has come from the hard work by fans and the authorities in England means fear does not follow the country everywhere any longer:

“Those are high-priority teams for us,” South Africa Police Service spokeswoman Brigadier Sally de Beer told The Associated Press on Thursday. “As with the (England)-U.S.A. game where we beefed up security … We will deploy additional forces and resources.”

Police had no information about any specific threats to the match, de Beer said, nor did they have particular concerns about the match featuring two of European football’s traditional rivals.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be any trouble between German and English fans on Sunday; but the odds that there will be anything serious are much higher than they would have been a decade ago.

Photo credit: & YasSseR & on Flickr, via the Pitch Invasion Photo Pool.

24 thoughts on “England at the World Cup: Where Are The Hooligans In South Africa?

  1. flyingv

    I was at the tourney in Germany in 2006, and there was definitely violence at the hands of the Brits- I saw it first hand. Did you see the BBC Documentary called “Hooligans”? Sure, the filmmakers infiltrated and recorded the violence and destruction caused by just a small number of the British fans that went to the World Cup that year. But the fact remains: even after British police took the passports of so many of the known hooligans, these delinquents still “thuged” it up, all in the name of England.

    The only reason that British fans aren’t causing trouble in SA is that flights and accommodations are expensive.

  2. Tom Dunmore Post author

    flyingv – yes, there were incidents. A small number of the 100,000 who travelled were arrested. The point is, it wasn’t a far greater number than other countries with large travelling support, and nor was it anything like the largescale violence at numerous major tournaments by England fans in previous years. There’s absolutely no doubt there has been a sea-change in the nature of English support at major tournaments.

  3. Tom Dunmore Post author

    To give another perspective – there’s an excellent academic piece on hooliganism from the respected Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool, which states that “Whilst aggressive and confrontational policing tactics in Charleroi in 2000 escalated minor incidents into widescale disorder, more progressive models of policing saw only one arrest at England matches in Euro2004 in Portugal, despite an estimated 250,000 English ‘football tourists’ being present. In Germany for the 2006 World Cup, it was actually possible to predict when disorder would break out depending on the way in which different police forces handled the same groups of English fans. When asking why hooliganism occurs abroad involving English fans, it is just as important to ask why disorder does not usually occur, despite large numbers of drunken (sometimes xenophobic) young English men and the presence of hooligan fans!”

    Ben – it sure helps when hooligans are all behind bars to begin with….

  4. Micah

    I don’t know if I saw the same BBC special but I did see a video on YouTube of England supporters trashing a bar, assaulting Arab men and then watching Darth Vader lookalike Germans run in an beat on ‘em with batons.

    Hey Tom, what do you think England forcing it’s citizens to hand over passports? What is the criteria in classifying someone a hooligan in England? Does that mean the 3,000+ forced to hand over passports were actually convicted of hooligan related violent crime?

  5. Lanterne Rouge

    Excellent article. As someone who has been watching football in England for over 30 years, I can confirm that hooliganism has become a more trickle compared to what it was. For sure, the problem remained with the international team’s followers long after it had begun to die among club fans, but Marseille in 1998 and Charleroi in 2000 really were the last significant outbreaks. The turn out of England fans still appears to have been sizeable in South Africa and your pirce rightly gives the supporters credit for cleaning up their act.

  6. Nik

    Jesus! Tom writes a piece that highlights huge progress off the pitch, and all the comments seek to rip holes in it! Listen, despite my nationality, I could not care less about the national team. And part of that stems from the knuckle-dragging, mouth breathing Neanderthals that were previously synonymous with the support. And nothing would please me more than to be able to tar all England fans with the brush of hooliganism. But the truth is, internationally, the issue has been well dealt with. There is still a largely unreported, and growing, issue within the national game, but that is not for now.

    The sorry-ass cliche of American “not being a footballing country” is rolled out by lazy, unimaginative trolls with little interest in the game outside of their pathetic club loyalties. This WC has shown that to be palpable nonsense. And similarly the assumption that the English are still looking for a fight wherever they go is clung to in desperation by folks with a desire to perpetuate a tired and redundant stereotype.

  7. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Micah – that is definitely an interesting issue there regarding the banning orders, probably worthy of its own post. There’s definitely some concern about how summarily they seem to be handed out; here’s a recent Guardian article on it:

    Without necessarily ever having been found to have committed a crime, you’re put on a secret list that the police keep of people who pose a “risk”. Your activities are monitored along with those of others on the list; you’re never notified that you’re on the list, or told what it means; then you come to court for something relatively minor, maybe swearing in a particular sort of public place, or pushing someone in a crowd, and your life changes.

    The police apply for an order curtailing your movements, you are forced to surrender your passport at certain times, and to report to the police. The application is made on the basis of reports of you associating with other people on the list, the very fact that you have been placed on this list is itself a reason for the police to get their order, and you have to defend yourself against allegations of being complicit in the activities of others who pose a “risk” even when those people can go unnamed, and the officers who have reported incidents go unidentified in the Crown’s case against you.

    You therefore cannot challenge directly the witnesses to these incidents, and the aspersion is cast without any clear criteria ever having been given as to what being a “risk” means, or warnings that you may be associating with others who are themselves a “risk”. Given this, you would hope that the test for the court in deciding if the police can have their order is a severe one, but the court “must make such an order if it is shown that the person has previously caused or contributed to any violence or disorder in the UK or elsewhere … and if it is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that a banning order would help prevent [activity-] related violence or disorder in England and Wales or elsewhere”. This is, in short, the punishment of future crime.

    The FSF will be pretty busy right now, but I’ll try to drop them a line and see what they’re current position on this is. Thanks for raising it.

  8. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Related to Nik’s point – this is the worst article ever written about hooliganism at the World Cup:

    It’s tempting to attribute all of this violence to the kind of dumb nationalism that flourishes during global competitions. I was in South Korea during the last World Cup, a country famous for its jingoistic outbursts, and was genuinely taken aback by the proud racism and xenophobia expressed during the tournament. But there is also something inherent to the game of soccer that leads to such astounding levels of violence. There is a reason that the Olympics, the World Baseball Classic, and the Rugby World Cup do not lead to the kind of violence that is typical of soccer competitions.

    It has to do with how utterly boring soccer is. The Beautiful Game is the Boring Game. The majority of stultifying soccer games are comprised of men running back and forth across a huge field, and failing to score a good, oh, 95% of the time. This goes on for ninety minutes. Russel Shaw of the Huffington Post may have put it best when he argued that it’s hard to be “enthusiastic about a sport where almost every initiative- advancing the ball down the field, attempting a shot on goal – leads to failure. Almost constant failure.” In comparison to baseball, another low-scoring game, “a 1-0 game is likely to have some artistry involved- the pitcher constantly out-thinking the batter by varying the speed and repertoire.” To watch a soccer game, however, is to watch athletes consistently fail.

    Because the sport itself is so boring, so devoid of action, of physical contact, of life, it falls upon the hyped-up (and in many cases, liquored up) crowd to enact the action that it failed to witness on the field. The patriotic crowd shows up looking for blood, and ends up with a zero-zero tie. Simply put, it is because the sport is so lifeless, that the crowds are so prone to violence.

    That’s an article from a couple of weeks ago on True/Slant. It’s hard to believe someone actually typed those words, had them published under their name, and wasn’t writing them for the Onion.

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  10. Web Tasarımı

    Excelent article The turn out of England fans still appears to have been sizeable in South Africa and your pirce rightly gives the supporters credit for cleaning up their act.

  11. Ian

    Wow, that is an amazingly bad article on True/Slant. You’d get a bit angry about it if it wasn’t so atrociously written and built on such a lame hypothesis.

  12. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Thanks for the link, Brad. Not to make light of something like that, but it doesn’t appear there were any arrests or injuries, and it was several thousand miles from South Africa. But, it is a sad trend that there does seem to be more of this kind of thing at public viewing events far from actual England games.

  13. Brad

    I wasn’t really trying to make that point. Its unfortunate that this happened but its not something I would consider hooliganism. Frustration, alcohol, and who knows a trash talking German could make anyone react poorly. God knows enough provoking after the US game I could have been trouble. I posted it because a quote from the article referenced “Old School Hooliganism” so I thought it was worth mentioning.

  14. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Brad – oh, yeah, realised why you linked it. And agree it’s not really hooliganism. Interesting that article was in the Telegraph – I wonder if the tabloids came up with some sensationalist stuff based on similar incidents? (anyone in England know?)

  15. Ian

    Didn’t seem to be anything major in any of the tabs, Tom, though I didn’t look at them too closely. The Sun seemed to be blaming the players, while The Mirror was more Capello’s case. They’re both, in their own way, missing the point. But, then, would you have expected anything else?

  16. Ian

    And, having been to a good many matches in England during the 1980s, I can say with absolute certainty that the one fan’s description of that little scuffle was more or less nothing like what used to happen during the days of “old style hooliganism”.

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  18. guy

    In Germany there have been lots of troubles with english fans.
    The BBC documentary will show you much of it.
    Denying it and saying the last troubles were in Marseille and Charleroi is either misinformation or propaganda. In each German town where England played there have been problems :Frankfurt, Nurnberg, Cologne, Stuttgart,Gelsenkirchen.
    But yeah, TVs didn´t film it so it didn´t exist, right ???
    Many thanks to the BBC !
    Watch it !

  19. Will McA

    The has been a huge improvement in the behaviour of English fans abroad, and this has gone part and parcel with an improvement in the way English fans are treated abroad. In 2006 I was in Dortmund on a field trip with university; the world cup was still several months away, we were well dressed and some of us spoke good German and there were no England games scheduled in Dortmund anyway; and still when we tried to go for a night out we had to give up after finding that every night club we went to told us ‘no English allowed’, it’s easy to imagine how people on being antagonised this much, and after a few drinks might be more predisposed to violence than normal, not saying it’s right just that antagonising people doesn’t help the situation.

    I couple of years later I just happened to be in Switzerland at the time of the European Championships, and me and my English friends had a great time, and I heard of no bad treatment in South Africa either, so things are getting better.