Veteran sports writer Simon Barnes asks how Three Lions fans came to be the most despised fanbase on the planet
Animals. That’s what the newspapers said on the day of the match, though you’d never get next door’s cat behaving like that. It’s what they always say. There had been 50 arrests overnight, mostly England football fans. Now – had I landed on a snake? – the newspaper I worked for was sending me to Marseilles, travelling with the fans for England’s opener against Tunisia in the 1998 World Cup.
Outside the Stade Vélodrome – odd name for a football stadium – the streets were filled with the shirtless. There comes a point during the consumption of alcohol when speech is no longer practicable. But not song. The tune was Go West, a disco hit by Village People recently given a new lease of life by the aptly named Pet Shop Boys. The choir, reddened and maddened by sun and beer, sang:
“And we’re proud of it – animals!
“And we’re proud of it – animals!”
Followed by more traditional chants celebrating England as a trisyllabic nation. At last the match started, and everything calmed down. England beat Tunisia 2-0 – goals from Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes, since you ask. But when we left the stadium, we found the citizens of Marseilles had thoughtfully collected the beer bottles abandoned by England fans.
These they threw back – on a high, mortar-bomb trajectory – as we made our way to the buses. Those that landed entire made the return journey. And off it kicked all over again
I reached the bus entire myself, just about, took out pen and notebook and began to write. ‘In-ger-land is another country. They do things differently there…’
It’s been a matter of national anguish for years. What dreadful things does it say about the English, that some English people must celebrate their Englishness in such a way? Is that why everyone hates them? And let’s not fool ourselves on this: everyone does hate them.
From Latin America and Australasia to most of Europe, Russia and even its neighbours in the home nations – England is universally despised. Is it its belligerent, jingoistic history? Its imperial heritage? Its supporters and their downright antisocial behaviour?
It’s worse when you read the sports pages the following morning: ‘A small minority of England fans…’ Yeah, right. Like the small minority that voted against Brexit, I suppose. Only different.
I’ve been with other small minorities before and since that happy day. Many, many times I’ve heard them shout – in between “God save the Queen” and “Send her victorious” – “No surrender!” Meaning, no surrender to the IRA.
I marched with another small minority to the stadium in Sunderland to watch England play Turkey: “I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk – yes I would!” I didn’t mention this when I met the future Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk when I was in Istanbul for the reverse fixture later that year.
The American writer Bill Buford travelled with England fans to the World Cup of 1990 in the course of researching his excellent book Among The Thugs. When we speak, he puts his success at penetrating the closed society of the hardcore element down to, “the fact that I am American, and the flexibility of my bladder”.
“The England fans were a rougher crowd than club fans,” he says. “Ready to fight and inflict damage. It was xenophobic, violent and with a quality of loathing. It was not redemptive in any way. It was nationalistic and ugly.”
He was there at the sharp end of the trouble in Turin. So was I, for that matter, but this time I was able to keep clear of everything except bad vibes – oh, and a bottle that was chucked at our car on the autostrada: a GB plate not being the best disguise.
“The English police know what they’re doing and they proceed without liberal platitudes,” Buford recalls. “But the Italians couldn’t deal with it. It was scary – they had no sense of limits. They put a tank in the square – a tank! They had no confidence in their ability to deal with it.” The arrival of the England fans was met with the same precautions as might be deployed to counter an incursionary force. And they wonder why they’re held in such contempt.
Turning on foreigners is the English national sport – but there’s scarcely a nation on Earth where it isn’t. There has to be more to our esteem (or lack thereof) in the international footballing community. If there’s a difference between England and other nations, it’s probably to be found in insularity. In the island-dweller’s concept of home and abroad: that once you’ve crossed the water you are not visiting a neighbour but entering an alien land where your own values are threatened as never before and must be defended at all costs.
A casual reading of the sports pages in any newspaper will give you a glut of martial metaphor: England were put to the sword last night, their goal withstood a steady bombardment, but they were brought back to life by a bullet header from the centre-half – the sort of man you’d want alongside you in the trenches.
Perhaps the English have a special love for these metaphors – and perhaps they take them more literally than most. Certainly the history of warfare with England’s footballing opponents arouses wild passions. England’s match against Germany at the European Championships of 1996 was greeted with the famous headline ‘Achtung! Surrender!’. And when England played Argentina in the World Cups of 1998 and 2002, there was little attempt to play down the associations with the undeclared Falklands War of 1982.
England’s traditionally martial view of sport – call it sporting literalism – has excited considerable anxiety about this year’s World Cup in Russia. That’s because Russia has become an enemy on two fronts. Partly this is politics, with memories of the Cold War refreshed by Vladimir Putin’s combative policies. And secondly, Russia has ambitions of its own in football hooliganism, with some Russian politicians even expressing their support.
Russia and England were rivals to stage the 2018 World Cup finals and there were powerful political forces behind England’s failure. Since then, Russian hooligans have boasted of increasingly higher levels of militancy – involving training camps, of all things – than ever before, and there has been much online trumpeting of their ambitions to give England supporters a hiding.
The trouble with such threats is that England fans, even at their most pacific and cheerful, are loud, boozy, swaggering, boastful and provocative. But they are hardly alone on that front. Are they? “I don’t agree that no other nation responds to international football in the same way,” says Geoff Pearson, senior lecturer in criminal law at the University of Manchester and a researcher on football crowd policing. “In terms of travelling in huge numbers and engaging in carnivalesque activity, chanting and heavy drinking, the Scots, Irish, Norwegians, Danes and many other (mainly Northern European) nations have fans who are very comparable.”
That’s true enough. During the European Championship of 2004, I was based in Lisbon. One day, I would be living in a nice city in Southern Europe, next day it would be full of the chanting drunk: on-again, off-again throughout the tournament.
Every match day was loud and boozy; every rest day you could sit quietly at the pavement café with your intellectual book. Didn’t seem to matter which nations were playing. And there was not much trouble, not even when England were involved.
“During 20 years observing England fans abroad, I have only seen fans travelling with the intention of engaging in violence and then doing so on a handful of occasions,” says Pearson. “The major disorder involving England fans in this time – most notably Marseilles 1998 and 2016, Charleroi 2000, and Albufeira 2004 – has occurred because ordinarily ‘peace-loving’ carnival fans have been drawn into disorder following attacks by locals, rival fans or the police.”
No doubt perfectly true: but it’s a fact that a group of 50 young males with 50 gallons of beer on board is as combustible as a petrol-soaked rag. Best not to offer a spark, then. And yet Welsh fans aren’t the target of such violence and vitriol overseas. Nor are the Irish. Nor the Scottish. So the question remains, what is it about England and the English that inspires such hatred?
No doubt it helps that no one ever called the British Empire the Scottish Empire. There were Scots doing all kinds of imperial tasks from one end of the Empire to the next, but no one confused the phenomenon of empire with Scottish nationalism. But empire was always linked with England and Englishness: in many places – the United States for starters – the words ‘English’ and ‘British’ are seen as synonyms.
Which leaves the Celtic nations playing the part of oppressed and conquered countries, and the plucky underdog is a beloved archetype the world over. But the plucky ‘overdog’ is never a popular figure. Cutting the bully down to size is a story told again and again – an eternal human myth – and England fans, by virtue of their behaviour and the history of their nation, perpetually cast themselves as Goliath.
But the facts of the 21st century are that England has been cut down to size, on a scale unprecedented in its history. England is a small nation, noisy out of all proportion to its modern achievements – a small nation that still thinks it’s a big one. The illusion of bigness is expressed in ear-splitting caricature on the streets of the footballing world. Small wonder outside observers reach with itching fingers for the sling and the smooth, round stone.
The notion of empire and entitlement causes division everywhere England fans travel – including within England. Dr Daniel Burdsey of the University of Brighton studied the relationship between British Asians and football. “There’s been a shifting mentality in the past two or three years,” he says. “These days, young people love football and support England – but going to watch an England match would be a further step. The symbolism and behaviour of fans stops them.
“The aggressive, white, combative masculinity is sometimes overtly racialised, and sometimes implicitly,” says Dr Burdsey. “It is significant that these days, England fans carry the flag of St George rather than the Union Jack – the St George’s Cross is seen to represent the far right, along with slogans like ‘no surrender’. That’s not just about the IRA – it’s also about rejection of Muslims and refugees – and is very excluding.”
Despite being overtaken in qualitative terms by top club competitions, the World Cup still has a great resonance, because international football tournaments involve not just fans but entire nations.
The power of the World Cup is in the narrative – a narrative driven by national identity. Peak events in World Cups become national archetypes of glory, failure, treachery, ignominy and futile heroism (always the best kind). That sense of being part of a great unfolding story, win, lose or draw, gives the nation a shared preoccupation and a shared conversation for two weeks – even longer should your team get beyond the group stage. Victories can be savoured, close calls can be recalled with delicious wincing and, in defeat, the country is united as never before. At least until tomorrow…
There is an innocence about this, but it’s innocence of a ratherknowing kind: a willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not something you could explain easily to uninvolved citizens in the town where the match takes place, while the hate chants ring out and the fans walk boozily along a tightrope, needing only a shove to turn singing into fighting. This bellicose tradition brings out resentments that come welling up from deep in history and deep in human archetypes, and it is indeed ugly.
So, is that what supporting England during a major football tournament is all about? Violence? Songs of hate? Can fans not cheer for England without loss of self, without despising the opposition and without confusing love of country with that country’s superiority to all other nations? Of course they can. And of course, most do.
But football supporters have long memories. One day, perhaps, England will embrace a new role as the plucky underdog and become adored and adopted by foreign fans – in the mode of, say, Iceland. That day, however, appears to remain a long way off. Until then, if you’re an England fan, you’re an unwilling conscript in the fan army of In-ger-land. Just don’t be surprised if people hate you for it.