‘It could have been a scene from any time during the worst years of football hooliganism’, read one report from last week. ‘The fan draped in an England flag on a debris-strewn street, strutting defiantly as a mob of supporters gathers nearby. The only thing that points to the fact this isn’t some flashback from the 1980s is the smartphone clutched in his hand.’
The tang of tear gas, dispensed with such strong-armed enthusiasm by the French gendarmerie, was still in the air, but that didn’t stop other pundits and politicians leaping to a similar conclusion: the so-called English disease was back, bare-chested and bottle-throwing in Marseille’s Old Port area.
It didn’t matter that actual old-school casuals, the hoolie-lore heroes of a thousand crappy Football Factories, are now pensionable and/or currently passportless under the draconian Football (Disorder) Act 2000. It didn’t matter that the strong-arm tactics of the French police, firing gas canisters into hitherto peaceable public places as a ‘pre-emptive’ crowd-dispersal tactic, at the very least proved provocative. It didn’t even matter that the majority of those caught up in the ensuing trouble were doing little more than enjoying themselves over a few pintes. The mere sight of a few England fans having a fight was enough — enough, that is, to confirm middle-class observers’ prejudices about match-going football fans, about those who follow the national team, about that type of person.
Hence Labour MP Andy Burnham quickly branded them ‘embarrassing’ while footballer-turned-crisp-handler Gary Lineker tweeted an image of a crowd of England fans, arms outstretched in invitation to their out-of-shot riot-gear-wearing opponents, alongside the caption: ‘What is wrong with these people?’ Admittedly, both Burnham and Lineker emphasised that it was just a ‘minority’ of troublemakers, but their eagerness to focus on the disturbances in Marseille, to make political capital out of them, in Burnham’s case, betrayed their discomfort with a perceived social type: the football fan, they suggested, is a problem.
Others were less coy. ‘We must grasp the nettle: there’s something intrinsically violent about football itself’, wrote one commentator. ‘The ritualised combat, the mindless chants and rituals handed down from generation to generation, the sublimation of individual conscience to crowd behaviour… Here, to speak frankly, is a medieval cult of violence spawned hundreds of years ago when unwashed and backward peasants took time out from fretting about scrofula to blow up a pig’s bladder and use it as the excuse for a gigantic ruck with the next village along.’