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?
There 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.