x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hooliganism still alive and unwell

The rabid scenes at Upton Park on Tuesday night gave all of us a jab in the arm like a tetanus shot that hooliganism still lurks in the darker corners of football.

The rabid scenes at Upton Park on Tuesday night gave all of us a jab in the arm like a tetanus shot that hooliganism still lurks in the darker corners of football. It did not make for good viewing. West Ham fans on the pitch at the Boleyn Ground provoking Millwall supporters, the stabbing incident before kick-off and the unsavoury scenes of hundreds of fans goading riot police after the match was just the sort of postcard image both clubs would have wanted to show anyone thinking of joining them for their next fixtures. But it's easy to blame the clubs, in this case West Ham and Millwall, for failing to control their fans. Don't get me wrong, clubs and players do have responsibilities to conduct themselves in the right way and set an example, especially to those young enough to absorb the words and actions so readily. Players are scalded for any behaviour we decree not befitting of a man taking home in a day's salary what we would struggle to take home in a month and yet the majority of whom do a ton of work for good causes and to promote their club behind the scenes in the community without so much as a mention. Clubs in England have worked feverishly over the last 20 years with the Football Association to eliminate this kamode element of fans and make grounds a more family-orientated experience. Stadia has been improved beyond recognition to the old wooden shacks I used to visit as a young boy in the early 1980s and while police presence has always been something I associate with going to matches, training and handling to diffuse situations between rival supporters before they flare up have, for the most part, allowed the majority of fans to enjoy their match day experience. Clubs have actively seeked out those perpetrators of violence, initiating bans ? some for life ? on anyone misbehaving in, around, or in some cases travelling to the ground. They not only provide their own security within the stadium but also have to pay local law enforcement to police outside the ground for every match day. And that doesn't come cheap. Trying to oversee the good reputation of a football club with it's hardcore element hell bent on tarnishing must be a lot like trying to run a successful restaurant with a chef who only does a shop once a week. You've got 60 covers for a lunchtime service, the stoves have been cleaned, floors have been swept, the glasses and cutlery polished. On the surface, it appears immaculate; somewhere you would happily take your family for an afternoon and even be willing to overlook the extortionate prices the chef has finely inked on an exuberant menu for four times what it costs to make the dish. The dining room is a whirlwind of hot plates, clinking of glasses and the hospitality of staff tentative to your needs. Then we move onto the kitchen. As said, the stoves have been cleaned, floors mopped furiously as if getting ready to stage an episode of Strictly Come Dancing. But then, your delicate senses are directed towards the fridge; when you open it, it should be a kingdom of fresh produce, locally sourced ingredients and the tenderest cuts to make the mouth water. The life source of your operation. But you've got a sloppy chef who think fresh produce means fresh out of a can and lasts three weeks. When you open the fridge door, you're greeted with decaying vegetables, sauces that have developed mould and rancid cuts that would make even those with a palette like the inside of a bird cage turn their noses up. The rot of the old will always spoil the splendour of the new. I'm not just here to sound out the shortcomings of West Ham and Millwall fans, far from it. I understand football rivalry, I dislike pretty much every other team on the planet other than my own when I'm not in a working capacity. But I think I have a pretty clear sense of the parameters of acceptability in letting another group of supporters know what I think of their team/town/women with words and the parameters of unacceptability of doing it by force. This disease is not exclusive to English football by any means either. English football and its fans have done well to shake off the unfortunate tag of 'English invaders' that served us so well in the late 1970s and 1980s. Armed with the mandate of burning the locals, terrifying the opposition and getting on a first-name basis with the local constabulary, Uefa subsequently imposed a ban on all English clubs from its competitions after the Heysel Stadium Disaster in 1985 ? in which 39 people died and 600 were injured ? which lasted five years (Liverpool were banned for an additional year which also saw a number of their fans charged with manslaughter). Every country has its hardcore fan-base. Real Madrid, Europe's most successful club, are backed by the notorious right-wing group, Ultras Sur. The Italian side Lazio give carte blanche in and around the Stadio Olympico to their Irriducibili fans, which is a bit like having 10,000 rabid dogs on the loose with the keys to lock up after they're finished. Teams in the Balkans have been investigated by Uefa for everything from racial abuse to the attempted murder of their own players. Even in the UAE, a country in its infancy in terms of professionalism, the authorities are getting a taste of how much this great sport can dement even the most upstanding members among us with the Al Ain fans, who found themselves up before the beak on more than one occasion last season for their fans' raucous behaviour. Hooliganism is still alive and unwell in football. No matter how much is done to paper over the cracks, underneath every club's goodwill in the community scheme and every attempt to stamp out the undesirable elements, it lurks. It feeds off the energy of the game just as much as every aspiring footballer and dedicated fan. Perhaps even more so.

sluckings@thenational.ae