England takes steps to stem fan-related violence | india | Hindustan Times
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England takes steps to stem fan-related violence

Though the 2002 WC was largely devoid of violence, this year's tournament in Europe is the real test to counter hooligan menace.

india Updated: Jun 01, 2006 16:17 IST

A 44-year-old England soccer fan, he feels compelled to launch pre-emptive strikes against anyone who thinks the team's followers are all hooligans.

"If we carry on the hooligan pathway, we will always be stereotyped, now won't we?" said Kitching, a supporter of Sheffield United who visits orphanages and organizes soccer camps for kids in the foreign countries that host his beloved side.

Pity the average England fan. These are the devoted that yearn to travel the world in support of the "Three Lions" without being seen as the root of all evil in soccer.

It's a tough reputation to shake. Britain has been forced in recent years to enact a raft of measures to prevent hooligans from wreaking havoc at international soccer matches - such as the riots that marred the Euro 2000 tournament in Belgium and the Netherlands and the 1998 World Cup in France.

Besides some 3,500 court orders that require known troublemakers to surrender their passports before big tournaments, England's Football Association took its own steps to try to stem fan-related violence.

It shut down its fan club and restarted it with new rules. Members had to reapply and agree to criminal record checks. Only those who agreed had access to tickets allotted by the federation.

There will be additional safeguards when England and its entourage of some 100,000 travel to Germany for the World Cup. British police officers will also attend the June 9-July 9 tournament to bolster the work of their German counterparts.

The fans decided they needed to act as well, organizing grass roots efforts to help other football enthusiasts stay out of trouble once they get to foreign countries.

Take the so-called "fans' embassy" - a van or a car that gets a Cross of St. George sticker plastered on the side together with a phone number fans can call if in trouble. The 'embassy' is driven to a conspicuous spot where England fans will see it, such as the center of town or the driveway of the stadium.

Volunteers staffing the embassy try to answer the critical questions, such as: "Is it legal to drink on the streets?" If there are rumors about vendors having tickets for sold out games, the embassy will try to find out if they are true and where the tickets can be had.

"You don't find that in the Rough Guide," said Kevin Miles, the international coordinator of Football Supporters Federation, an independent fans organization with 130,000 members.

Miles and other fans recognized that while there was plenty of criticism of England supporters, there was little help for them if they got into trouble. So in addition to founding the 'embassy,' a core of volunteers roam the streets of foreign cities to hand out information to fans describing the country they are visiting.

Getting England fans in line is critical to soccer's bigwigs, who see the quadrennial blowout as a chance to show the sport has risen above its working class roots and become a more elite game embraced by the middle and upper class.

Though the last World Cup, shared by Japan and South Korea, was largely devoid of violence, experts say that tournament was too far away for hooligan groups to reach. This year's tournament in Europe is the real test.

"The biggest market has not been broken," said Mark Bushell, a soccer historian at the National Football Museum in Preston, England. "If there's a lot of violence in this year's World Cup, it would damage efforts to sell the sport to the Americans in the way they've been trying to do in the last few years."

But a boisterous England contingent is not the only concern. Polish, Czech and Dutch hooligans could also mar the event. England supporters fear such groups may target them - in part because their reputation precedes them.

Fans say, though, that the reputation is out of date. Mark Perryman, author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation, says fans have improved their image by staying out of trouble during the last few major events.

He says, for example, that he learned a little Japanese for the last World Cup to try to be polite. "It was much more fun to loved than to be loathed," he said. And Tim Hillyer, 47, a London businessman who studies German so he could chat up the locals, said he for one was going out of his way to be friendly.

Just to underline his point, he bought a T-shirt emblazoned with the word 'Fanfreundschaft' (fan-friendship) - a visible sign that fans are united in hoping for a violence-free tournament.

"That's to show everyone, the fans are together," he said.