Twenty years ago this week, more than 1,000 England supporters were arrested and deported for fighting and disorderly behaviour at Euro 2000. The Guardian, which reported they had attacked French, Turkish and North African supporters in Brussels before scrapping with Germans and Turks in Charleroi, called it a “shameful new low”. In truth it felt merely like a variation on a decades-old theme. Same ultra violence and rabid nationalism, different location.
Afterwards, as politicians began the rush to condemn, the Labour peer Roy Hattersley uttered a stark truth. Those in power – and parts of the media – were also to blame. “Football provides the opportunity for warp-minded chauvinists to demonstrate their brutal contempt for foreigners – a contempt which is often encouraged by politicians and journalists,” he wrote. “We need a change in culture at least as much as we need a change in the law.” That call, as the events in central London on Saturday reminded us, remains urgent.
The people who threw punches at police and urinated by the memorial for PC Keith Palmer, who gave his life tackling a terrorist, may not have worn the cross of St George, but many were football fans. That much was obvious from their songs and snarls – the booze‑soaked chants of 10 German Bombers and Rule Britannia familiar to those who follow England away – and their willingness for a ruck. The fact that the “protest” was organised by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), a far-right organisation, was even more of a giveaway.
And let us be frank. There is a link, however much they deny it, between the anti-immigrant and anti-Europe rhetoric of some politicians and newspapers, and what we saw at the weekend. If you repeatedly poke the embers of a smouldering fire do not be surprised if it occasionally bursts alight.
In some ways, thankfully, things have improved over the past two decades. According to the Home Office, hooliganism is on the decline in England, with 1,381 football-related arrests last season, a 55% decline compared to 2010-11. However, there is nasty kicker. It now also collates “experimental statistics” – including the number of games where a hate crime was reported. In the 2018-19 season that figure increased by 47%, from 131 to 193 matches – and 79% of those hate-crime incidents were related to race. It is not enough to ignore the dinosaurs in the hope they will die out.
In 2017, when the Football Lads Alliance had 10,000 marching in London, the anti-fascist organisation Searchlight warned that “a key feature of all racist and fascist street movements is that if left unchecked they can grow very fast – it is important to take the threat of the FLA seriously”. Since then the FLA has morphed into the DFLA, which – according to Chris Allen, an associate professor in hate studies at the University of Leicester – has “catalysed, emboldened and sharpened its focus” and has a “far more committed and extreme support base”. The group has always been anti-Muslim. In recent weeks, as the Black Lives Matter campaign has highlighted the systemic and structural issues in society, the DFLA has displayed more explicit racism.
The irony, of course, is that in the same week that these men – and it is always men – who profess to love their country were causing mayhem in London, several members of Gareth Southgate’s England squad were making a real difference. Marcus Rashford revealed he had supplied three million meals to help people struggling in the coronavirus pandemic, while Raheem Sterling spoke powerfully about the lack of black people in football’s hierarchy. Southgate, meanwhile, admitted that “removing that ceiling for ethnic minority groups is one of the biggest challenges we face, not just in football, but right across society”.
One note of optimism is that those involved directly in the worst of Saturday’s violence are unlikely to escape, even if they have not been arrested yet. One lawyer I spoke to said that while the police tactics had been defensive on the day, many would have been videotaped and later identified. “The courts are pretty hard on people who throw bottles and attack the police and you are looking at a 12-24 month spell in prison. However the ringleaders don’t necessarily get directly involved and so often escape prosecution.”
Yet still I worry. I worry because the looming economic crisis is bound to make the siren call of extremists more alluring to those struggling in towns and cities battered by austerity.
I worry because one of the more depressing things I saw last year in the Nations League Finals in Portugal was a young lad, no older than eight or nine, watching as his dad launched into another rendition of 10 German Bombers.
I worry because these people continue to swallow the myth of English exceptionalism – witness chants of “two world wars and one World Cup”.
I worry because there is an increasing sense of there being two Englands: one looking forward, the other back; one inclusive, the other destructive, both talking past each other, and social media amplifies their differences.
And I worry because this time next year, England could face Germany in Dublin in the last 16 of Euro 2020. If there is trouble there will be the familiar condemnations, of course. And yet I bet the grim cycle will continue.