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UEFA Euro 2024: Weak beer no problem for happy England fans

Oliver Moody
June 17, 2024

German authorities implemented a raft of measures for England's opening game, mostly centered on alcohol. Was this a reasonable response given past events?

English and Serbian supporters in Gelsenkirchen stadium
Despite the concerns of the authorities, there was little, if any, trouble inside the stadiumImage: Alexandra Fechete/imago images

Jude Bellingham’s thumping header made it all worthwhile for the England fans. A win in their team’s opening Euro 2024 game against Serbia kept them happy, even when an unconvincing performance, along with rain and long travel delays, threatened to ruin their day. And one other thing was not quite as they would have liked it to be in Gelsenkirchen: the beer.

Various special measures had been put in place for what authorities had designated a "very high-risk game," with a focus on alcohol. The usual full strength Bitburger pilsner was not on sale at the stadium, only the brewery’s weaker light beer, containing 2.8% alcohol instead of the standard 4.8%. Fans were also limited to two beers per order, a rule unique to this match. And drinking alcohol was banned during the game in one of Gelsenkirchen's main squares.

"The square will be a fan zone for other matches in the city. But not for England," police spokesman Stephan Knipp explained.

German authorities could hardly have made it clearer that they think England fans, specifically, have a booze problem.

Jude Bellingham standing with outstreched arms
Jude Bellingham's goal was all it took to send England supporters home happyImage: Martin Rickett/PA Images/IMAGO

"I think it is a very high-risk game," Gelsenkirchen Police Chief Inspector Christof Burghardt told British broadcaster Sky News prior to the match.

"The English guys, with a lot of alcohol, they are sometimes very aggressive."

For Thomas Concannon of the Football Supporters' Association, which advocates for fans of English and Welsh teams, the measures reflected an unfair perception of England fans.

Lasting reputation

"This doesn’t feel like it’s necessary for this game. We don’t know where the intelligence is to say why it’s high risk," he told DW. "It just feels as if it’s that old reputation of England fans. It still feels like it sticks at certain points."

England undeniably had a chronic hooliganism problem in the 1980’s, culminating with English clubs being banned from European competitions for five seasons after the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels, in which 39 people were killed.

Then at Euro 2000, England were almost thrown out of the tournament due to fan clashes in Belgium.

But Concannon said English supporters had moved on from those violent times.

"The atmosphere has been good. England fans' reputation abroad has been fantastic for years. We were the fans of the tournament the last time we came to Germany, and we played in Gelsenkirchen in 2006," he said.

The concerns have not come out of thin air though. Problems with drunken fan behavior have been a feature of recent Euros tournaments. In 2016 there was trouble ahead of England’s opening game in Marseille, and again in the stands during the match against Russia. Local thugs and Russian hooligans were alleged to have started many of the clashes, but England fans may have been at least partly responsible.

Police took no chances

And ahead of the last Euros final in 2021 when England lost to Italy, the scenes of chaos outside Wembley, where ticketless fans attempted to storm the stadium, were shocking enough that a documentary was made about the event.

Police in Germany were clearly not willing to risk a repeat. Authorities said that more officers were on hand for this game than had ever been deployed at a Revierderby, in which local side Schalke face fierce rivals Dortmund.

However, journalist James Montague, an expert in ultras scenes around the world, told DW a show of force by police can create more problems than it solves.

Police in riot gear gathered in front of a restaurant with fans stood outside
Police were highly visible surrounding Serbia's clash with England in GelsenkirchenImage: Paul Currie/Shutterstock/imago images

"I think overly visible policing is completely counterproductive," he said. "They feel like they have to show their strength somehow, as a way of containing the crowd. Where actually crowd management doesn’t really work like that."

Those thoughts were echoed by a Serbian fan outside the stadium ahead of the game.

"You see the police getting involved when they don’t need to. Sometimes it feels like the police are actually provoking things," he said.

Mainly peaceful 

Ultimately there was a limited number of arrests on Sunday, and none among the England fans. A group of Serbia supporters was attacked at a restaurant in town prior to the match, although it was not immediately clear who was behind the assault. Whether the day remained relatively peaceful thanks to the heavy police presence, or in spite of it, is unclear.

But while most fans did not seem bothered by the number of suited-and-booted riot cops, the beer restrictions did raise eyebrows. The late kick-off time (21:00 CEST, 9 p.m. local time) meant anyone wanting to drink heavily had plenty of time to do so before heading to the stadium, with its reduced-alcohol beer.

"You question the tactics around it, given that England fans are able to drink in the city, they’re able to drink normal strength beer," Concannon, the fan advocate, said.

At the same time, he said he understood why a city with a population of just over 250,000 would have had its concerns about hosting huge numbers of England supporters.

"It is a small town, and England fans could arrive in the tens of thousands. You can understand why they would have an element of caution," he said.

"It’s the measures that are then put in place around that, that we think have a negative impact on what they’re trying to achieve."

That is, if they had any impact at all.

As a Swiss fan wearing an England shirt outside of the stadium put it: "We’ll just have to drink twice as much."

Edited by: Chuck Penfold

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