Coming up short in the final of the European Championship and failing to end the 55-year wait for a major trophy was a major disappointment, but what really showed English football in poor light was the conduct of fans before, during, and after the match against Italy on Sunday.
English hooligan firms returned to twisted ideas of “fan following”, “supporters”, and “atmosphere”, which degenerated into unacceptable behaviour, complete with a semi-clad intruder on the pitch and gangs urinating in the streets, signalling civic breakdown.
The storming of Wembley by people without tickets before the game and charging at hapless stewards ill equipped for riot control, brought back nightmares of the Heysel tragedy (in which 39 mainly Italian Juventus fans were killed in a stampede before the 1985 European Cup final in Brussels), and the Hillsborough disaster (in which 96 people died in a crush in a standing-only pen before an FA Cup semifinal in Sheffield in 1989). What followed on Sunday was lawlessness of the kind not seen in the United Kingdom since the riots of 2011.
Abusing and attacking rival fans and turning on their own in defeat signals a deep malaise in English football that is often buried in the glitz of the Premier League and the hype around the under-achieving national team. Frothing to the top on the biggest day in English football in half a century, it pointed to the ominous restlessness of fans who couldn’t keep it together as their team reached the final for the first time in decades. It contrasted especially sharply with the German fans’ dignified acceptance of defeat at the hands of Italy in the 2006 World Cup semifinal at Dortmund.
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The life and emotions of the English fan has in many ways mirrored those of the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s iconic Fever Pitch (1992), who evolved from being an Arsenal lunatic smitten by his overpowering obsession to re-learning to be a fan whose life did not hinge on the outcome of a game of football.
Yet, the videos of the ticketless louts that shocked people around the world on Sunday were a harrowing reminder of the anonymity that Hornby’s teenaged central character sought — since it gave him “time out from being a jug-eared, bespectacled, suburban twerp” to be an organ in the larger body of hooliganism, “intimidating the shoppers of Norwich, or Derby, or Southampton,…with violent four-letter-word chants on the terraces of North Bank…”.
Fever Pitch underlined that “violence and its attendant culture are uncool”, but left a cautionary note that these aggressive feelings could flare up anytime.
Even more than Hornby’s trailblazing memoir, John King’s viscerally blunt novel The Football Factory (1997), fleshed out the fanatic protagonist, Chelsea hooligan Tom Johnson, whose passion for football became both the reason and occasion for violence.
“We’re a minority because we are tight. Small in number. We are loyal and dedicated. Football gives us something. Hate and fear makes us special,” says Tom. On Sunday, at Wembley and elsewhere in London, the same passion reared its ugly head — the manifestation this time of a desperate narcissism and unbearable craving for the elusive title that has repeatedly driven the country unhinged.
Despite the money it generates, football in England is still considered a “people’s sport” and “working man’s passion”. Players often come from modest backgrounds, and the top ones then go on to become multimillionaires. The average fan identifies himself with them, but is resentful when the idols fail to deliver on the field.
The frustration manifests itself in unruly behaviour and violence against rival fans, the general public, or even family members. Women have often dreaded football games for wholly non-footie reasons. According to the UK’s National Centre for Domestic Violence, cases of abuse and assault go up 26 per cent on average when England play, and 38 per cent if they lose.
The online abuse after the final zeroed in on Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka. That all three youngsters are black points to another aspect of the game in England — racial targeting. While players of minority ethnic and religious backgrounds on opposition teams are often picked out for special attention, on nights like last Sunday, even their own aren’t spared.
Fans who indulge in rowdy behaviour and arson have tended to be a mostly white, male demographic. For the hooligans, high on substances, blacks and other ethnicities — who are now participating in much bigger numbers in football than earlier — are tolerable only as long as they help the team win. And when they can’t, they have to pay the penalty in the form of suffering racist abuse or having their faces on street murals and billboards vandalised.
The British political establishment has hesitated to condemn this abuse wholeheartedly, choosing to see it as part of some sort of broad ‘culture war’ over Britain’s identity. When England players took a knee before their matches to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Home Secretary Priti Patel, ironically of Indian heritage, termed it “gesture politics”. A government spokesperson suggested that sections of the crowd that booed when the players knelt were well within their rights to do so. When the condemnation of online racist bullying came from the same people who had crinkled their noses at legitimate anti-racist protesting, it appeared plain disingenuous.
The Conservatives currently in charge in the UK had cheered the country’s separation from the European Union (EU). The spoken or unspoken claim that Britain is somehow superior to countries on the continent finds resonance with those who attack Italians and Germans during football matches, either verbally or physically. The trolling of a 7-year-old German girl, crying after her team’s exit, by English online bullies marked a special low in fan discourse.
Dredging up World War rivalries from the last century to whip up a frenzy when two football teams faced off in 2021, provoked behaviour that culminated in national anthems being booed, and rival fans being threatened from close.
At least one mainstream newspaper gloated before the final that the EU would be discomfited by England’s excellent run in the competition. “After Brexit, now this…” was the suggestion. The win against Germany acquired a nasty edge, and those on the terraces latched on to the theme to run riot.
The unruly scenes at Wembley could be explained away by linking it to lockdown fatigue — and the newly-regained freedom after months of pandemic-forced restrictions.
More moot though, is the fact that the impression the little island sometimes has of itself — in football and the world at large — is a combination of misplaced glorification of its past, downright racism and jingoism, and a reluctance to accept less pleasant current realities.
The English team gave a good account of itself, finishing regulation time 1-1 and narrowly missing out on penalties (Italy too fluffed two), and remains much adored for its diverse composition — a united bunch that stands up for each other. English football though, is dangerously poised on the cliff, and Sunday’s events could jeopardize the UK’s efforts to land hosting rights for the 2030 World Cup.