The history of English people travelling abroad to cause trouble significantly pre-dates the rise of major international football tournaments (the First Crusade began in 1096), but there’s no questioning that in recent years, justifiably or otherwise, the Three Lions’ loyal support has often been cast as the poster movement for lairiness in distant climes.
The conversation surrounding the extent to which England fans are a persistent nuisance is perhaps less nuanced than it should be. True, like the Blitz or low-rise jeans, football hooliganism has spawned a wave of plastic nostalgia from a body of people who weren’t around to witness it in its initial incarnation. Lionised by wannabes whose entire perception has been shaped by ITV2 re-runs of Frodo Baggins frollicking around East London singing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, there are faint strains of violence that, for some, gladly simmer just beneath the surface. These are the lads Klarna-ed up to their eyeballs in Stone Island just to bob about like pebbles in a puddle.
There is no denying that those issues have, and still do, exist. In 2006, 200 fans were taken into custody in Stuttgart following clashes with riot police at the German World Cup. In 2016, England’s European Championship campaign was marred by violence in Marseille following incidents involving Russian and French hooligans. And look no further than last summer’s Euro 2020 final, during which anarchy reigned and genuine disaster was only narrowly averted. An FA-commissioned report into the disorder around Wembley that day described the chaos as a “national shame”.
But, by and large, it feels as if there is a growing optimism that things are slowly getting better. Fan trouble in any guise, hooliganism or otherwise, is mainly an isolated phenomenon at this stage. Ugliness the likes of which we saw in London last year, while inexcusable and concerning, is not the norm. Such idiocy has always been a preserve of the minority, but as The Guardian succinctly put it back in 2013, what was “once considered a cancer, is now more like a cold sore”.
In successive World Cups now, England supporters have been relatively praiseworthy. South African authorities reported no football-related arrests involving British fans in 2010, and save for one man biting off another man’s ear in Brazil, 2014 also passed without incident. (Admittedly, it’s a pretty gruesome act to overlook, but unless the offender was part of the Van Gogh Ultras, chances are it would be stretch to attribute the act to hooliganism). Even four years later, when fears were stoked over further clashes with Russian presences, trouble was confined to a handful of “scuffles” among English fans, with a “good atmosphere” otherwise.
You would imagine that a “good atmosphere” is something that travelling supporters will need to replicate in Qatar this winter.
Much has been made of the potential pressures that fans can expect in the Middle East once FIFA’s controversial festival of human rights abuses gets underway in late November. Qatar is a country where homosexuality, for instance, is still illegal. That kind of social oppression is hardly conducive to a spirit of inclusivity, despite the vague reassurances of authorities.
And aside from systematic inhospitality towards the LGBTQ community, supporters face a myriad of other complicating factors. As an Islamic nation, Qatar has a zero tolerance policy on drinking in public, and inebriation in public spaces is a crime. Those laws will be relaxed for the tournament, but fans will still be restricted as to their alcohol consumption. Beer will be served for 19 hours a day, but only in specific locations, including The Arcadia Festival, a designated fan zone featuring a giant 50-tonne fire-breathing spider. Think Glastonbury, except without anything that makes Glastonbury what it is, apart from a giant 50-tonne fire-breathing spider. (I’ve just googled this and they’ve actually hired out the same spider, which presumably means that for a certain price you too could book it out for a birthday party or other such function. Imagine having it at your funeral.)
But as with all the best fire-breathing spider revelry, there will be strict limitations as to how silly things are allowed to get. Qatar will enforce “sober zones” for fans who drink to excess. You know that episode of The Simpsons where Homer drags everyone to the Duff Festival and Marge is locked in the designated drivers’ cage to stop her from drinking? Yeah, like that - but sandier and with more black coffee. As for drugs, any England fan found smuggling cocaine into the country could face the death penalty, which is a sobering enough thought to render the aforementioned zones moot. Even vaping, the fruitiest of all the vices, is a punishable offence.
Ensuring that all of these various tripwire rules are followed to the letter will be a security force numbered in the tens of thousands, including 3,000 specialist personnel from Turkey - described by the Mirror as some of the “most feared riot cops on the planet”.
All of this is to say that England fans will have little wiggle room when it comes to creating trouble, and those who manage anyways are likely to be met with serious, potentially bleak, repurcussions. Of course, many will argue that on the matter of social order, Qatar have the right to police the tournament as they see fit. When it comes to drugs and alcohol, fair enough. But others will question why FIFA, hunched over a kitchen sink in its ivory tower washing the oil residue from its newest nest egg, has insisted on holding its showpiece spectacle in an environment that, at times, can border on the Draconian.
Football, and especially the World Cup, should be about unity and togetherness. In a global climate that is so often divided and tense, it provides a rare opportunity for commonality. Despite espousing a rhetoric in which they speak about development of the game in regions that are otherwise lagging behind, FIFA’s decision to stage the tournament in Qatar has shown a blatant lack of consideration for supporters, or for the human impact of the governing body’s (greedy) vision.
Because whether its travelling fans being strong-armed into paying £200 a night for accommodation that amounts to a portacabin in the desert, or the 6,500 migrant workers who have allegedly died in the contruction projects that have made this World Cup a reality, people are going to be counting the cost of Qatar for a long, long time to come.
England fans have done a lot to be critical of in the past, and two wrongs don’t make a right, but maybe this winter we need to reserve a measure of the condemnation that is usually directed at a brainless minority of supporters for the authorities that have brought this debacle into being.
Original story appeared on appeared on 3 Added Minutes - a new football site that goes beyond the 90 minutes of football reporting.