Play games behind closed doors

In the end, England's inept players were left to do what the authorities should have done from the moment the first beer-bellied lout stepped on to Continental soil to give his first two-fingered salute: send the English ingloriously home. Football, a game of beautiful simplicity in itself, has generated a greedy, violent and hysterical culture. Behaviour that would not be tolerated in any other area of life has become normal for players, managers and fans. It comes, we are told, from a minority. Read John Lichfield, the Independent's distinguished foreign correspondent, reporting from Charleroi last Monday. Of 15,000 England followers in the town, he estimated that 10 per cent were outright thugs and 10 per cent were law-abiding supporters. The remaining 80 per cent were "good-humoured, aggressive, drunken, racist, foul-mouthed boors". Ask why a "minority" just happened to be close enough to the players' tunnel audibly to shout "we hope your kid dies of cancer" as David Beckham left the field after England's first defeat. Nothing arouses such raw passions or such heavy alcoholic intake as Rugby Union's Six Nations tournament; ask why opposing supporters of that game can mingle in six capital cities with minimal police supervision.

Football matches are allowed to disrupt normal life to an absurd extent. There is no reason why the people of Brussels and Charleroi should have to tolerate their cafes and streets being sprayed with water cannons. Nor, for that matter, should the people of Eindhoven have to put up with half-strength beer even for one day, just so that football fans can be kept sober. Nor, to dispose of another piece of foolishness, should British traditions of civil liberties - that people can move freely unless proved guilty of an offence - be compromised so that the worst hooligan element around football matches can be reduced. (Be sure that, as soon as any measure to allow "suspected" thugs to be kept at home were enacted, some entirely innocent citizen, perhaps some Liberal Democrat MEP travelling to Brussels, would be seized.)

The simple answer, when football matches are thought likely to cause mayhem, is to ban them as a threat to public order. The Home Secretary can be accused of negligence, not because he failed to introduce new laws, but because he failed to lean on the English FA to withdraw from Euro 2000 at the first intimations of trouble, rather as his predecessor James Callaghan leaned on the cricket authorities to stop the South African tour (for fear of anti-apartheid protests) in 1970. Alternatively, football matches may be held behind closed doors at secret locations at secret times. This would have the advantage of keeping everybody at home by their television sets, since only thus could anyone be sure of seeing the match. Given that football now gets only a fraction of its income from payment at the gate, nobody would be much worse off.

The football cognoscenti would object that, without the roar of the crowd, matches would lack atmosphere. Here we get to the nub of the matter. The people who run the game have no interest whatever in cooling the passions that lead to violence. The bickering and cursing players, lashing out at referees and at each other, the gesticulating managers, the snarling fans - the whole, adrenalin-enhancing hullabaloo - are all part of the drama that makes football such a marketable commodity. The language of war and combat, of life and death, of national chauvinism or tribal allegiance is freely used. Screaming, foul-mouthed fans, always teetering on the edge of violence, simply ratchet up the tension another notch or two. Only when people actually die (or more precisely when international bodies look set to ban English teams) do football's rulers and players endeavour to calm things down.

Football is a gravy train, making millions for the top clubs and their players, pulling the viewers into television channels, boosting newspaper circulations, sustaining a lucrative industry of shirts and boots and bags. The costs of regulating and policing it are borne largely from public funds; the more unquantifiable costs of rowdiness and general inconvenience are borne by anybody who lives within a mile of a major ground. Governments, always ready to kowtow to business interests that see money-making opportunities, fall over themselves to host tournaments, treating football as though it were a public service like the NHS or a utility like the water supply. It is time they treated it as what it is: an industry that happens to trade on violence, bigotry and confrontation.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, We made the people-smugglers rich