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A few years ago the sight of 70,000 England fans descending on Germany would have triggered panic among security officials. Today the fans are more orderly, if not necessarily sober.
England's fans get their own spot outside the city center
The safe money a few years ago would have been on Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Cologne joining Heysel, Charleroi and Saint Etienne in the blood-stained, broken annals of English soccer hooliganism notoriety.
If a punter had walked into a betting shop as recently as six years ago and placed a bet on the odds of 100,000 English fans flooding into Germany without any serious rioting, the bookmaker would have probably snapped their hand off in an attempt to get the cash before clarity set in. Such was the reputation of Europe’s most feared hooligans.
This is why reports that the German authorities and World Cup organizers have praised England’s fans for their behavior is such big news.
England Fans wait patiently for the game to start
England’s games so far in this World Cup have been the best attended for any team other than the host nation itself. Over 70,000 England fans were in Frankfurt for the opening game against Paraguay; almost the same again were in Nuremberg to see the 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago. Even more are expected in Cologne for the crunch Group B game with Sweden. And yet, there have been only a handful of arrests, most for low level offences such as drunkenness and ticket scalping.
England fans impress with good behavior
Despite an incident in Cologne the night before the game where a number of fans were arrested for disorder, most England supporters in Germany have displayed a very different image to the one their reputation carries. So what’s changed? Why have England fans suddenly won plaudits for their behavior? Is it because everyone feared the worst? Even a little disorder would be an improvement on the all-out conflict of previous tournaments.
Better than their reputation? England fans on the Rhine bridge in Cologne
“The FA (English Football Association) has done a lot but most of the hard work has been put in by the fans,” said Jack Walker, a fan from Manchester who’ll be in Germany for the duration of the World Cup with his 14 year-old son Ben. “We were just sick of the nutters who were giving us a bad name. We now make the effort to respect people and places more, make it more of a family event. I’m not worried to take my boy to see England these days. Five years ago, I would have thought twice about going on my own.”
Beer: a recipe for disaster?
The reputation the English have as a “party ‘till you puke” nation has always been maintained by their package tour holiday-makers and soccer fans. And from opening time at the specially arranged England-only fan park on the opposite side of the river Rhine from Cologne city center, there are signs that nothing much is different.
The warm German summer just adds a little more justification to the general belief that beer can be breakfast in the right surroundings and situations. However, despite the vast quantities of flowing hops, there is no malevolence in the air. True, it is early in the day and if many fans continue at this pace, inhibitions and self-control may not only be lowered but discarded altogether by kick-off. But even so, the atmosphere is jovial.
“The majority of the hardcore are old gits now. Who wants to go fighting one day, and pick up your pension the next?," said proud England fan Gaz. "If there is trouble, it has nothing to do with the real fans. It’s always been like that but people believe us more these days. We’re dealing with it and so far, I think, you can see the results.”
As far as respecting the locals go, England fans still sing songs about the war and the infamous “Ten German Bombers” does a brief round before being drowned out by endless refrains of “Three Lions.” But the Germans on hand to keep the food and drink flowing are treated courteously. When a group of supporters strike up their brass band, a couple of surprised but game waitresses are scooped up and whirled around to the strains of “When the saints go marching in.”
Hard core England fans still know how to party when their team is ahead
It does seem to be a victory for the real fans over the hooligans but supporters in rival colors are very much in the minority. As the day wears on and the increasingly belligerent and well-oiled chants of “Inn-ger-laaand” reverberate around the park, one wonders what a counter-chorus of the German national anthem would provoke.
England fans ordered to the sidelines
So do any of the fans think that being directed away from the city center and the constant monitoring by helicopters above is an affront to their embryonic reputation as orderly supporters? Do they feel like they’ve been corralled away on the banks of the Rhine for security reasons?
“Nah, it makes us feel special!” says Janet Crawford, one of a group of pristinely decked-out middle-aged ladies knocking back Riesling in the sunshine. The wild cackles from her companions suggest she’s not being entirely serious. “I’m not offended. I haven’t heard of anyone who is. It’s packed in the city. We’ve got the best spot.”
As the preview for the Germany – Ecuador match airs on the big screen, showing action from the hosts’ previous games, a chorus of “Dive like the Klinsmann…You all dive like the Klinsmann” sounds out to the tune of “Guantanamera”. The England match starts in a few hours. It’s going to be a very long night.