WORLD CUP : English Team and Its Fans Are Receiving a Stern Test in Mexico

Times Staff Writer

The 13th World Cup soccer championship begins here Saturday, with each of the 24 competing nations feeling varying degrees of doubt and uncertainty.

But while Italy’s qualms, for example, center on its ability to retain the title it won in Spain four years ago, and while Brazil’s and West Germany’s difficulties have to do with the fitness of respective star players Zico and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, England’s problem seems far more serious.

The English team has a desire to do well not only to revive flagging interest in the sport at home, but also to restore the country’s tattered image abroad.


Exactly one year ago, that image, already badly frayed, was ripped apart in a few minutes of violence.

Thursday was the anniversary of one of the blackest days in soccer history, the day in 1985 that a riot of English fans resulted in the deaths of 39 persons attending the European Cup Final at Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

One year later, extraordinary steps are being taken to see that the same type of behavior that led to that tragedy is not allowed to recur in Mexico.

In the northern industrial city of Monterrey, where England will play its first-round games against Portugal, Poland and Morocco, a spokesman for the British Embassy said earlier this month that authorities are taking all possible measures to prevent an influx of English “hooligans.”

The spokesman said, “We have had talks with Mexican authorities to make it as difficult as possible for these hooligans to come here en masse” and added that similar steps have been taken to keep “the criminal element” from Scotland and Northern Ireland at bay and out of Mexico.

This week, the English-language Mexico City News published a remarkable open letter to British soccer fans from the captains of the three British teams. In it, Scotland’s Graeme Souness, Northern Ireland’s Sammy McIlroy and England’s Bryan Robson wrote:


“Thank you for joining us in our great World Cup journey to Mexico. We hope we can give you the results and performances your loyalty deserves.

“We are sure you realize just how big a part you can play in our success.

“We need to hear you cheering at our games. We need to see a mass of banners, flags and rosettes--genuine support on the terraces and not aggro (aggressive behavior) that might distract us and wreck our game.

“We know that the vast majority of you have no intention of doing anything in Mexico except enjoying the football, the sun and the hospitality of our Mexican hosts.

“To those few who might be tempted to spoil it for the rest, we say, ‘Please give us a break.’

“Remember, you are ambassadors for Britain just as much as we are. Don’t do anything that’s going to make our job harder. Together, we can make the whole of Britain proud of us.”

The letter is part of a leaflet being given to all British travelers to Mexico. The very fact that it had to be written at all indicates the sad state of affairs in Britain.

As a direct result of what happened in Brussels last year, English club teams are under an indefinite ban from taking part in European competitions. If fan behavior at the World Cup is not exemplary, that ban is unlikely to be lifted soon.

Of course, it is not just the troublemakers of the last few years that are causing England a problem in this World Cup. The deterioration in soccer relations between England and Mexico goes back much further than that.

To trace the roots of the problem England faces in trying to win its second World Cup, one has to go all the way back to a match played at London’s Wembley Stadium 20 years ago.

It was there in the quarterfinals of the 1966 World Cup that eventual winner England defeated another future champion, Argentina, 1-0, in a bitter match remembered more for the behavior of the Argentine players and a resulting comment from the English coach than for the quality of play.

Brian Glanville, soccer correspondent for The Sunday Times and author of “The History of the World Cup,” wrote in his book:

“The Wembley match, or fiasco, would reverberate for years to come (and) would polarize European and South American football.”

The Argentine players, especially team captain Antonio Rattin, “embarked on a maddening series of deliberate fouls,” according to Glanville, and were subsequently cautioned by the West German referee. The issue came to a head just before halftime, when Rattin, once again protesting vehemently against the cautioning of a teammate, was ejected from the game and refused to go.

The match was held up for 10 minutes while the argument between referee and player went on and the Argentine coach threatened to pull his team off the field. Eventually, Rattin left, exchanging insults and gestures with the crowd as he trudged to the locker room.

All this might have been given less attention had it not been for a postgame comment from England’s no-nonsense coach, Alf Ramsey. In an unfortunate remark, Ramsey called the Argentine players “animals.”

The comment was publicized throughout Latin America, where it was taken as an insult to all Spanish-speaking people. So, when Ramsey brought the English team to Mexico in 1969 for preparatory play before the 1970 World Cup, he was a likely target for attack.

Nor did Ramsey help when, after a scoreless tie against Mexico at Azteca Stadium in May 1969, he was asked if he had anything to say to the Mexican press.

“Yes,” Glanville, in his book, remembers the English coach as saying. “There was a band playing outside our hotel until 5 o’clock this morning. We were promised a motorcycle escort to the stadium. It never arrived. When our players went out to inspect the pitch (the field), they were abused and jeered by the crowd. I would have thought the Mexican public would have been delighted to welcome England.”

Later, in Guadalajara, Ramsey further endeared himself to the Mexican media by literally chasing reporters from his team’s locker room, saying, “ You’ve got no right in here.”

Now, flash forward 16 years to last December and the draw for the 1986 World Cup. Before it was held, England’s coach, Bobby Robson, apparently having learned nothing from his predecessor, Ramsey, again offended Mexican sensibilities by voicing some unflattering words about the city of Monterrey.

Robson, fearful that England would be drawn to play in that city in order to keep its hooligan fans as far from Mexico City and the other venues as possible, lambasted Monterrey, criticizing its heat, its altitude and anything else that came to mind.

Then, apparently having been spoken to by English officials, Robson had to backpedal fast when England was, indeed, drawn to play in Monterrey. “Monterrey is a difficult place to play football because of the heat, and that’s a fact,” Robson told Mexican reporters on a visit to the city. “But we want to be your team. We want to win for you. We want you behind us.”

It was too little, too late. The next day, Monterrey’s afternoon newspaper, El Sol, carried a banner headline on its front page saying, “The Animals Are Coming,” a direct reference to England’s hooligan fans but also a payback for something said years ago.

Ramsey’s comment of almost 20 years before had come home.

And that, unless the English fans in Monterrey succeed in dispelling their violent image, is why England is a worried team on the eve of the 13th World Cup.