British Soccer Is Often a Riot, but Not a Funny One : Fans Have Put Their Worst Feet Forward, Leaving the National Sport Fighting for Its Life

Times Staff Writer

On an unseasonally warm and sunny Saturday morning recently, police in this city of 100,000, a 20-minute train ride from London, braced for trouble. Dozens of them patrolled the streets or stood in doorways of shops only yards apart. Many held vicious-looking dogs on leashes.

At 10:30 a.m., the show of strength by the local constabulary seemed oddly out of place. Saturday is market day in English towns, and the streets, shops and markets here were crowded with bargain hunters.

But this time of year, Saturday in England is also “match day.”


On this day in Watford--and such towns as Leeds, Manchester, Tottenham, Liverpool, Coventry and Leicester--92 Football League clubs would play their 10th games of the new soccer season that began in late August. Watford was to play Chelsea in an important First Division match. First Division clubs are the elite of British soccer.

The excitement here matches an autumn Saturday in a midwestern college town in the United States. While thousands of people shopped, seemingly unaware of the heavy security, thousands more streamed by foot to the local soccer grounds, a 10-minute walk from the town center.

The reason for the police soon became apparent. When the special football trains from London arrived about 10:45, they responded quickly and efficiently. First, they separated the rooters, most of whom were from Chelsea, at the station. Then they escorted the Chelseans around the center of town to the old red-brick stadium. It was reminiscent of the way the Soviets controlled traffic at their Olympic Games.

At the stadium, the 4,000 visitors were herded into a fenced-off section of the stands where police kept them penned up until they escorted them back to their trains after the game.

Such is the state of soccer in England today. The country’s national sport is virtually under siege. Attendance is down, clubs are losing money and the game, by all accounts, is fighting for its life.

Some of the trouble can be blamed on the tragedy at Brussels, where 39 people were killed in May at a soccer match; the fire at Bradford, a city in northern England, where 56 spectators died in a blaze that destroyed the stadium, and the race riots at Birmingham and Brixton. But hooliganism--or the “British disease,” as it is known on the Continent--is still what keeps most fans away. Although no violent incidents have occurred this season, perhaps due mainly to a crackdown on the hooligans by the government and the police, many people still are afraid to attend a game.

After a match Oct. 9 between Leicester City and Derby, rampaging fans left a trail of damage. They looted shops, burned cars and fought with 300 police in Leicester. About 2,000 Derby fans were being escorted to the railway station by police when hundreds of them broke away. Rioters threw fire bombs, bricks and concrete slabs at police.

A match between Tottenham and Birmingham was postponed when police reported that hooligans from other cities, notably Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham, might appear to incite another riot. Tottenham called off another game after a riot the previous week.

Tottenham executive Peter Day said, in announcing the postponement of the potentially explosive match against Birmingham: “It’s a sad day when we are forced to call off our games, but we consider the safety of our spectators of paramount importance.”

With the Football League facing bankruptcy because of hooliganism, riots and other problems, the major First Division clubs will try to salvage their sport by forming a so-called Super League.

The 92 clubs of the Football League are expected to lose almost $35 million this season. “What we are talking about is a bankrupt industry,” said one league executive.

In the United States, the equivalent of the Football League’s death would be the National Football League going under.

Tight security and fear are not the only problems fans face today. Since the Brussels riot, any game that is expected to be a source of trouble is designated as a “ticket match,” meaning all tickets must be purchased in advance. Kickoffs to such games have been advanced to 11:30 or noon from 3 p.m. to cut down on the spectators’ drinking time. Much of the past hooliganism has been blamed on drunks.

The Watford-Chelsea match was a “ticket game.” Kickoff was at noon and all tickets were gone in advance. While Watford, which is owned by entertainer Elton John, has a squeaky-clean reputation as a family-oriented club, Chelsea fans have one of the worst reputations in the League. Police had reason to be wary of them.

Chelsea, a West London suburb, is a good neighborhood but, one London sportswriter said, “All around, the Chelsea fans are an unsavory lot.” To get a ticket, even in advance, for the Watford-Chelsea match, a fan had to show a “loyalty voucher” on a ticker stub from an earlier home game. “This enables us to separate the home and away supporters and maintain our safe reputation,” a Watford executive said.

Once at the stadium, the fans were searched for booze and weapons. Television cameras scanned the crowd during the game while police watched on monitors. Knowing that the police release the pictures of troublemakers, spectators bent on mischief usually cover their faces with scarfs.

The game drew 16,000 fans when such a match normally could be expected to attract 25,000.

The decline in attendance is the fault of the anti-hooliganism measures, said Graham Taylor, the Watford manager. “It depresses me to see football grounds looking like fortresses,” he said. “But hooliganism must be tackled. I want to see the segregation of fans. I want to see the offenders punished. Now that the government and police are behind us, we should be able to crack the problem.”

There has never been any violence at Watford, and there was none on this day. Families sat together in one section of the stands, and clowns entertained the children. Watford won, 3-1, and the Chelsea fans had little to get emotional about. “The atmosphere couldn’t have been less hostile,” said one reporter.

Asked if the poor image of his club’s fans was a burden on his team, Chelsea Manager John Hollins said: “No, not at all. Our supporters are the best in the country.”

Chelsea has one of the largest and most loyal support groups in the league, second probably to Manchester United.

“When teams win, fans cheer,” Hollins said. “When they lose, they are quiet. Today, our fans were quiet. We seem to have things under control now. Maybe we need more early games.”

On May 29 in Brussels, while a horrified TV audience watched, 39 people, including 31 Italians, died in a riot during the European Champions Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus of Turin, Italy.

Liverpool fans were blamed for starting the riot, smashing a flimsy metal barrier separating them from the Italians and pushing them, as they retreated in panic, into a concrete wall that collapsed on them. Some of the screaming Italians were trampled to death. The British fans then ripped down metal fences to make weapons, and hurled rocks, cans and bottles at police.

British politicians were angered and horrified at the barbaric behavior. Queen Elizabeth said she was shocked. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said her blood boiled. The riot, she said, brought shame and disgrace to England. British standing in Europe had suffered a devastating blow. “Sickening,” headlined the Liverpool Daily Post.

All English teams except the national World Cup club were banned from European competitions as a result of the riot and Englishmen, who had endured the mounting violence of hooliganism for more than a decade, took a hard look at their favorite game. Stringent measures, such as the ones in force at Watford, were adopted to control it.

The sale of alcohol inside stadiums was banned, as were any objects that could be used as weapons. Fans of rival teams were separated by strict control of ticket sales. Fans who entered stadiums with alcohol in their possession were subject to being sent to jail or being fined as much as $1,200. Fans drinking on trains and buses en route to games also were subject to severe penalties.

Teams were urged to use ID or membership cards so fans could be banned if they misbehaved. Use of such cards is voluntary, but fans who don’t have them are segregated. Watford’s Taylor, and others, oppose the cards.

“I know casual supporters won’t join,” he said. “But the hooligans will.”

What sets hooliganism apart is, the violence originated with the fans, not the athletes, as it does in U.S. contact sports. Strangely, rugby, an extremely rough contact sport played here, does not excite the fans to violence.

Soccer fans have long held a reputation for rowdyism and violence, and true hooliganism seemed to hit its stride in the early 1960s. Fights are common, inside and outside stadiums and on trains and buses. Soccer is a working man’s sport, played by millions in this country who can’t afford memberships to golf and tennis clubs.

In 1972, a British psychiatrist predicted that hooliganism would run its course in five years and fans would find a “more fashionable outlet for their energies.” He was wrong, of course.

In 1975, a mob of more than 1,000 youths arrived in London on a train they had partly wrecked. Met by another mob, they fought in the streets with knives and bottles. Many were drunk. Passers-by were attacked and stores looted.

After that orgy of violence, cries were heard for tougher measures to deal with the problem. “Some fans are pathological thugs who reject society and its civilized values,” said one Football Assn. official. “These are the antics of madmen.”

The violence was said to stem from a breakdown in the discipline of the country. “The whole country is being held to ransom by immature youngsters,” another official said.

Soccer fans riot in other countries, too, but the English seem to be something special. In 1982, some 60 British supporters were arrested after a violent street fight with Danish fans in Denmark. Danish police called the British “drunken idiots.” In 1983, rampaging British fans put Luxembourg in a virtual state of siege. All of the country’s 600 police and many of its armed forces were mobilized to control the hundreds of British fans.

The British played no favorites; they rioted in Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. Neil MacFarlane, British sports minister, suggested that the battle against hooliganism be planned on a military scale. Hooligans should be put in prison, he said.

Still, the riots continued. There were two major ones in 1984. A dozen British fans were kicked out of Austria after bars were smashed and Vienna citizens terrorized. In France, 500 British supporters went on a day-long rampage, vandalizing a channel ferry, racing commandeered cars on the Dunkirk docks and smashing cafe windows and overturning automobiles in Paris. A dozen people were injured by knives and axes, and 30 British fans were arrested.

After Manchester United had won the Football Assn. championship in London, an estimated 500,000 supporters welcomed the club home, and in the enthusiasm 12 fans were hurt badly enough to be hospitalized. Four had heart attacks, two broke legs and one his neck.

Try as they might, the British obviously do not have hooliganism under control.

On Aug. 17, a memorial service in Liverpool for the victims of the Brussels riots was disrupted by hooligans shouting obscenities while the mourners sang “Abide With Me.”