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Europe: Soccer Hooligans Threaten England's Euro 2000 Chances

Europe's governing body for soccer, UEFA, has warned England that if there is more hooliganism by English fans, England could be kicked out of the tournament -- even if its team does well in a vital match against Romania tonight (Tuesday). RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky talks to an expert on English soccer hooligans about why they are so disruptive.

Prague, 20 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The scenes of violence when hundreds of English soccer hooligans ran amok in Belgium this weekend were all too familiar.

A mob of violent, drunken English thugs brought terror and destruction to the Euro 2000 socccer championship, which is being watched on television by tens of millions and is outranked in importance only by the World Cup.

And this time, the English mob outdid itself by wreaking its ugly brand of aggression on two cities in one day: first the historic city of Charleroi, where the English team played Germany, and later in the Belgian capital, Brussels, where many of the hooligans were staying.

More than 450 English supporters were rounded up by police and deported to Britain.

Fed up with these eruptions, soccer's European governing body, UEFA, has warned that if there are any more outbreaks, England could be thrown out of the tournament. The first test for the fans will come tonight, when England plays Romania.

UEFA's chief executive, Gerhard Aigner, says the English fans' behavior has scarred the tournament.

"UEFA will have to determine whether the presence of the English national team in the tournament may be maintained should there be a repetition of similar incidents. Obviously, we cannot afford yet another repeat of the scenes of recent days."

Most English people are disgusted and ashamed by the behavior of the violent minority of English fans, whose notorious rampages around the world have been branded the "English disease." British people remember with shame the tragedy in Belgium's Heysel Stadium in 1985, when English Liverpool fans attacked supporters of Italian club Juventus, causing a stampede that killed 39 people.

British Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw told the British parliament yesterday that the government will try to introduce laws that will ban for life from soccer matches in Britain and abroad anyone convicted of hooliganism. Straw said:

"These incidents remind us once more of the shame that hooliganism has brought on our country over the years, and they must reinforce our determination to stamp it out oversees as we have done at home."

The British police, using tough methods, have over the past 10 years managed to eliminate most of the hooliganism that in the 1970s and 1980s was a recurring feature of English soccer.

But preventing the hooligans from engaging in violence abroad has proved much more difficult. British police cooperated closely with the Belgian and Dutch hosts of Euro 2000, giving them information about known hooligans and preventing some of the worst offenders from traveling to the games. But it has not been enough.

For a decade, the British police have had a special unit gathering intelligence on and tackling hooligans. But numerous sociological, psychological, and criminological studies have failed to pinpoint why hooliganism persists so stubbornly.

One person who tried to find out was U.S. author Bill Buford, who lived in Britain for many years. He infiltrated hooligan groups and wrote a remarkable book about them called "Among the Thugs."

"What I did was I spent six years going around with English football supporters and looking for the most violent ones to befriend."

Buford says hooliganism is the embodiment of a perverse type of machismo. He says that, while in most countries, machismo is expressed in the way men behave towards women, in the culture of the English hooligan, it is aimed at impressing other men by acts of drunkenness, coarseness, and violence.

"There is in the culture [of hooliganism] itself a tremendous premium put on violence and fighting and a kind of pugnacious, persistent defense of a bravado line."

But Buford said the most important element is a primitive and brutish English nationalism which emerges when the hooligans go abroad, and which makes most English people squirm.

"When they're there (English fans abroad) they see themselves as representatives of the nation defending the Union Jack [flag], defending Englishmen, defending the Queen, defending all the people that are full of loathing for them at the moment. They're a very, very peculiar breed of people."

Buford says that, contrary to popular belief, English hooligans are not usually unemployed or impoverished people from the bottom of the social heap. Instead, most have well-paid jobs such as builders, drivers, and electricians -- and some are even accountants, businessmen, or lawyers.

He says the hooligans derive an identity and a sense of power from being part of a large group. They also know that it is much more difficult for them to be caught, let alone successfully prosecuted, if they are part of a mob.

"What they do is a kind of anarchic celebration of maleness, and the anarchy arises out of a very developed awareness of how many rules and laws you can break without getting into trouble. [That] awareness [is] even evident today in the aftermath of the trouble between the England and Germany supporters. There were a lot of people apprehended. It doesn't sound as if there are actually going to be a lot tried. They might have some trouble when they come back. It's very difficult to prosecute a member of a crowd."

Buford says widespread hooliganism is an English, not a British, phenomenon. He points out that Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, all parts of Britain, do not have much trouble with hooligans. He says hooligans in some other countries where fans have a reputation for trouble -- like Germany, Holland, and Turkey -- have copied the English.

"I often think that there was a kind of English style being exported in the same way that there were English styles in music and dress at other times."

Buford thinks that hooliganism will persist until the penalties for it become too unpleasant. But he says tackling the English strain of the disease is particularly important.

"It would be a very depressing consequence for football fans, both English football fans and I think any fan of the game, if England is banished from the competition. The sad, cynical fact is that if England is banned from European competitions, the violence will almost certainly disappear."

The Belgian city of Charleroi, where English fans rampaged last Saturday, was today bracing itself for a second English visit. Everyone is waiting to see whether the UEFA threat will temper the behavior of the hooligans. The peaceful majority of the English fans, in particular, do not want to be punished for the shameful misbehavior of a few.