For the fans who brought poison to Porto, following England abroad seems to be more about occupation than celebration
By the time Portos rush-hour commuters were bustling along the Avenida dos Aliados on Thursday morning the only evidence of the previous nights mayhem was the faint whiff of cheap lager. Every shard of every broken bottle hurled by England fans had been swept up. Every inch of the fan zone, where riot police had charged as the atmosphere turned nasty, was scrubbed and polished. The stain on Englands supporters reputation, however, will be far harder to remove.
Since the 2006 World Cup, fan zones have been a place for supporters of all countries to unite in a shared love of football. But those England fans who lobbed bottles at locals many of whom were families with children took what was beautiful and poisoned it. Just like they have done so many times before.
Afterwards I spoke to one England fan who promised that most supporters were behaving themselves. Its an element, he insisted, shaking his head. Then again, its always an element.
That is the problem. There is almost always a sizeable group that follows the same modus operandi when England play abroad. Laying down St George flags in a city centre to mark territory. Getting wrecked and singing songs such as Fuck the IRA and the Pope. And, as day veers towards night, increasingly revelling in the sort of anti-social behaviour littering, blocking traffic, making wanker gestures at locals who object to their behaviour and so on that causes offence but rarely leads to an arrest.
For such fans, following England abroad seems less about celebration and more about occupation. They also see nothing wrong with their behaviour. But how would they feel if thousands of Portuguese marauders descended on their town, pissing in gutters, throwing bottles, and squaring up to cops? Or as is the case in Guimares on Thursday forcing schools to close early because of fears of more violence?
British police had warned last week that there could be trouble with 18,000 England fans arriving in Portugal. The Football Association had anticipated it too, putting out a video telling them Dont Be That Idiot with Gareth Southgate urging supporters to make the country proud. The sad thing is, in their own distorted minds, thats probably exactly what some thought they were doing.
On Thursday the FA released a statement condemning the behaviour of fans as embarrassing and insisting that they were not true England supporters. It could have been written at any point in the past 40 years. Call it tribalism, nationalism or something else but hooliganism is hooliganism, and England has been its leading exporter since the 1970s.
What we have seen in Portugal goes beyond football, and into wider English culture. This is the same behaviour you see in any town centre on a Friday and Saturday night, only with a dash of nationalism and exported Brexit on tour. This is England 2019, sadly.
These are the fans who wallow in distorted histories, such as the RAF from England shooting down the Luftwaffe, and are blinded by English exceptionalism. Unfortunately they are also too blind to see the eye rolls and head-shaking from local people horrified at their behaviour.
The numbers of arrests certainly could have been higher. On Wednesday night, for instance, I recorded the aftermath of a Portuguese driver who had his car window smashed by England fans who then made wanker signs at him. He was understandably angry. Yet when he pulled up his car to tell a policeman they intimated it was best to let it go.
One of the saddest things I saw was outside Ryans Irish pub in Porto: a young lad, no older than eight or nine, watching as his dad launched into another rendition of Ten German Bombers on the 75th anniversary of D-Day as well. What future will he have, I wonder?
There are some crumbs of comfort. After I posted a clip of police baton-charging the England fans who had been lobbing bottles, the most common response was shame, embarrassment and anger.
And this isnt the hooliganism of the 1980s, when the Guardians former football correspondent David Lacey wrote of one England tour where a odious group of sieg-heilers who on a number of flights in South America sat a few rows back from the England squad making audible comments about John Barnes.
That was also a decade in which the American writer Bill Buford attending his first English football match at White Hart Lane in 1983 charted scenes that included someone being urinated on, men wearing National Front badges and chants of Wogs Out. Buford was horrified but added, almost as a footnote in his book Among the Thugs: For my friends it was an ordinary day out.
There is less outright violence now compared with the 1990s or early 2000s. The English hooliganism strain has changed and mutated and, among the larger clubs at least, significantly weakened. Only last week 100,000 Liverpool and Spurs fans mingled happily in the centre of Madrid with barely any issues. One theory is that supporters of big clubs in big cities are more liberal and less nationalistic.
Whether that is true or not, the Football Association and the rest of us need to have an urgent conversation about what is so different when it comes to the England national team? And then find a way to drain the poison.
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