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Saturday, July 4, 1998 Published at 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK

The English and their image problem

Arrests in St Etienne the night before the England Argentina game

World Cup violence might not have been as bad as had been feared, but as BBC correspondent Kevin Connolly reflects, the fans' behaviour has probably had a more lasting impact:

[ image: BBC Correspondent Kevin Connolly]
BBC Correspondent Kevin Connolly
The signs of how proudly and how carefully St Etienne had prepared for the World Cup were everywhere.

Even the slag-heap which normally serves only to remind you of the town's status as a clapped-out mining centre had acquired an air of grim gaiety.

A multi-coloured ribbon several metres wide and several kilometres long had been draped around it in a fetching spiral pattern.

In the main square a giant screen catered for the ticketless and row after row of beer tents supplied the legless.

An unvisited exhibition of avant-garde art in the middle of the temporary bars bore sad witness to the unshakeable French belief that culture can always be disseminated in even the least promising circumstances.

Clearly whoever thought of that had never spent much time with the drunken supporters of a defeated football team, but you couldn't help being touched by the thoroughness of it all.

Riot police

[ image: French riot police detain England football fan]
French riot police detain England football fan
And no-one of course had been more thorough than the local police.

Four or five-man patrols of CRS riot police wandered through the main square every four or five minutes.

Coachloads of reinforcements, with protective helmets and tear-gas grenade launchers piled up in the rear windows sat sweltering out of sight in side streets.

It was the day before England's fourth - and as it turned out final match of the World Cup - and by now the preparations were grimly familiar.

The rituals of news which quickly come to surround repetitive events were already well established for each England game.

Interviews with mayors or other civic officials would yield the hope that things would pass off peacefully and that the air of festivity which should surround the World Cup would somehow be preserved.

Conversations with senior police officers would bring hints of extensive reinforcements drafted in from elsewhere in France and promises of unbending severity in handling troublemakers.

Enduring image

[ image: England fan wielding chair during trouble in Marseille]
England fan wielding chair during trouble in Marseille
The enduring image of this world cup will not be of the artistry of Ronaldo or the sending off of David Beckham - it will be of rows of police officers in full riot gear facing ranks of drunken English supporters in night-time streets littered with crushed beer cans and plastic half-litre glasses.

I have heard it argued even by senior French police officers that somehow the way in which England's games were reported, with the movements of its fans detailed like the deployments of an invading army, has somehow exaggerated the scale and nature of the problems that have surrounded this World Cup.

After all runs this argument - take out the real violence and destruction that resulted from clashes between England fans, Tunisians and the police in Marseille and the moment of savagery thuggery when a group of Germans beat a gendarme into a coma in Lens - and how bad has the trouble really been?

The authorities say around 700 people have been detained of which 140 have been brought before the courts.

Rather sad, argue some French pundits when you think this is supposed to be a sporting event, but not bad when you reflect on the enormous numbers of football fans who have been trailing all over the country frequently in advanced stages of drunkenness or disappointment.

Media changes

There is a debate to be had - not that I propose to contribute to it now about how the changing technology of news means that audiences will have to get used to interpreting what they see on their screens in a way quite different from the one they are used to.

[ image: English fans fighting in Marseille]
English fans fighting in Marseille
Now they can find themselves watching live pictures of a stand-off between English football hooligans and French police officers which might develop into what would ten years ago have been regarded as a clash worthy of a formal news report but which might equally fizzle out.

In other words the privilege a journalist used to have of watching events develop is now much more widely devolved - a good thing I think on the whole.

Those French pundits and English hooligans who argue though that the media has been reporting trifling events merely because they were there with the technology that made it possible seem to me to be missing the point.

Bit of a laugh

Watch a group of English thugs terrifying French motorists in their home town by draping flags across windscreens of passing cars or pouring beer on the windscreens and true you are seeing an event of no great importance to anyone except the victims.

But you are also witnessing the loutish behaviour described by many England supporters as a bit of a laugh which helps to explain how the view of the English held by many people in France and elsewhere in Europe is changing.

Anglophiles in this country - the mayor of St Etienne is one - tend to have a traditional view of England based on the novels of Thomas Hardy or childhood touring holidays in Dorset.

For many the World Cup has offered a picture of a very different England with a yob culture based on drunken aggression, and ranting, empty-headed nationalism.

Pot-bellied thugs

This is an England represented abroad by pot-bellied thugs with a sense of mindless superiority over all foreigners apparently rooted vaguely in twisted recollections of centuries of war.

Somewhere in the back of thousands of minds is a puzzling set of values in which screaming abuse at French pensioners or urinating in a foreigner's garden are somehow seen as a natural progression from the charge of the Light Brigade or the victory at Waterloo.

God knows how we've created that mentality, but believe me we have.

It is true, as everyone keeps saying, that only a small minority of England supporters were involved in real violence.

But in a way what has interested and appalled the French in equal measure has been what they have seen as the unpleasant and threatening behaviour of a much larger number who have nothing to do with serious trouble but who have behaved in a way that foreigners find difficult to understand and I fear, impossible to forget.

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