By GABRIEL HERSHMAN
IT CAN be harmless fun that makes us forget our problems for 90 minutes. In a world of increasing individualism, where people beaver away at their own pursuits, it’s a rare form of collectivism. We discard the mobile phone, computer or DVD, stop channel hopping and root for a common enterprise. In that respect, at least, the World Cup, which started last week in Germany, is a form of socialism.
But football tournaments have their downside. For some people, not genuine fans, these events are just a drink-fuelled escapade, an opportunity to forget social constraints and return to the tribal mentality of the caveman. The hooligan views the brawling as more important than the competition, simply an opportunity to attack his opponents.
I visited Albufeira’s ‘Strip’ during Euro 2004, the preferred place for many non-ticket holders to watch the matches. A Sky News cameraman, bedecked in England strip and built like Hulk Hogan, was interviewing the fans. Perhaps the news channel had picked the biggest cameraman they knew – just in case of trouble. A nervous-looking Portuguese street cleaner wore an England shirt, not out of an affiliation to David Beckham and his team-mates I feel sure, but more out of fear that he would be targeted if he didn’t. I watched as tattooed British ‘supporters’, stripped to the waist, pushed aside a hapless Indian man who handed them a flier for a restaurant. Portuguese staff cheered on the English team and decorated their bars with St George’s flags. Maybe they were just flying the flag of the country that contributed the most to their coffers?
Once English fans discovered they were talking to a journalist, they unleashed a diatribe, offering opinions about the team’s line-up and the deterioration of Britain. Prefacing their comments with the standard disclaimer, “I’m not racist”, they proceeded to attack various ethnic minorities. One England supporter claimed to be a socialist, but then said he wished Enoch Powell had become Prime Minister. When I pointed out the contradiction, he protested, erroneously, that Powell had been a Labour MP.
Disrespect to the host nation
All nationalities produce their share of hooligans but, somehow, British supporters always seem the most aggressive. There is a natural belligerence at the heart of the British. The same ‘qualities’ that forged an empire and won so many wars make us, according to a recent poll, the most likely Europeans to indulge in anti-social behaviour.
I watched the Portugal versus England match, the decisive game that eliminated England, in a bar in Carvoeiro. Some English fans booed the Portuguese national anthem before the match, a grotesque discourtesy considering they were watching from the host nation’s soil.
Commentators frequently cite hostility between English and Germans fans. It exists, but the mutual disdain is probably greater between Britain and France – hence the appalling street battles in Marseilles during the 1998 World Cup. British tabloid editors have tried to stoke up Anglo-German rivalries – perhaps most infamously The Mirror during Euro ’96 when the paper likened the confrontation to World War Two. But, in truth, the hostility between the two nations is somewhat overplayed.
The classic Fawlty Towers episode featuring John Cleese goose-stepping in front of German hotel guests, seen as the pinnacle of TV comedy, dates from 1975. German bashing was then at its height, spurred on, in part, by envy at Germany’s superior economic performance. Today, most football hooligans are likely to target those of darker complexions. Indeed, one of the most unfortunate aspects of the World Cup is that packed stadia assure racists complete cover. In a large crowd, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint those responsible for racist chanting or throwing banana skins at black players.
Those of us who are not football aficionados cannot quite understand the almost blind fervour of fans. The same people, who are normally perpetual grumblers about every aspect of life in their native country, suddenly become patriotic during the World Cup. They may display indifference to violent crime, global warming, animal rights and starvation in Africa. They probably never join a demonstration. Yet they are moved to hysteria by the performance of a group of individuals they do not know, whose victory or defeat will not change their lives one iota.
I too will be watching the World Cup – simply as an agreeable entertainment – but I won’t be displaying the undisguised glee that grips so many fans as they watch one flag triumph over another.