As I emerged from the metro station into the afternoon heat of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, the adage ‘Mad dogs and Englishman go out in the midday sun’ circled around my mind ad nauseam.
As opposed to the relatively subdued scene I had witnessed during the previous days, the square was filled with a sea of blue shirts and Midlands accents. This was, by no means, a rowdy crowd: fans of all ages, races, and genders ate, drank, and played impromptu games of football, generally contributing to a carnival atmosphere, which, at least from my own perspective, genuinely appeared to be inclusive, even family friendly. A companion of mine spoke of similar scenes, at least early on, in the famous Plaza Mayor.
They had even voiced their relief that it was Leicester City, and not Chelsea or another English team with a bigger reputation for crowd trouble, that had been drawn for the first-leg Champions League clash. Indeed, I myself remembered having read, after their Premier league triumph, of Leicester’s family-like ethos. For example, free beer and cupcakes are given out on their chairman’s birthday, as well their relatively multicultural fan base. This seemed to me to be a step in the right direction, away from the bad old days of bigotry and violence on the terraces which have, in past years, affected my own hometown of Cardiff.
I was consequently shocked to hear news that evening of antisocial behaviour and violence between fans and the Spanish police. Reports of the usual jingoistic chants like, “ten German bombers” as well as the more specialised, “You Spanish bastards, Gibraltar is ours”, were accompanied by videos of the lighting of flares, the throwing of objects at police, as well as the subsequent baton charges, tear gas, and even, ‘allegedly’ rubber-bullets, with which the authorities replied. All of this caused me to wonder, what changed the dynamic from one of friendly excitement to one of tension and aggression? Booze? Police overreaction? Brexit? Even Englishness itself?
It is almost inevitable that the gradual descent from day-drinking into day-drunkenness will cause any crowd of football fans to get rowdier. Yet a specific, most likely very small, subset of fans were clearly unable to resist turning pre-match joviality into outright antagonising of anyone not from ‘Ingurrland’.
While my own experiences of watching Welsh international football have certainly been punctuated by the occasional childish anti-English chant, particularly during the Euros last year, the reactions of locals to such behaviour from Welsh and English fans abroad still differ immensely.
In 2016 French paper L’équipe went as far as to call the Welsh supporter contingent in Bordeaux “magnificent” and “above all peaceful”, venturing the explanation that the Welsh “must ‘put beer away’ better than others”, while the French media, perhaps in some cases unfairly, roundly condemned the English as violent boozed-up thugs. Regardless, local authorities consistently seem to detect violent and unruly undercurrents in the behaviour of English fans at both club and international levels. Deliberately provocative elements, such as the controversial content of their chants, which reference foreign wars and terrorism more often than most fans from the British Isles, often add an intimidating, even sinister, undertone even with the presence of a language barrier.
Meanwhile, some prejudice against English supporters may merely be a legacy of a decades-old negative press coverage over English football fandom. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, England has seen little to no growth in groups of professional, only martially trained, ultras in the mould of Russia’s Orel Butchers.
My lingering questions about the roles of Leciester fans themselves in all this were at least partially answered on my flight back to Wales the following day. In contrast with the near-empty flight which I took on the way to Madrid, the queue to check-in was packed with worse-for-wear Leicester fans. Several large groups middle-aged men were on the flight and my seat was in the middle of them. The fans I sat next to were roughly my age. After striking up a conversation I found out that, though many also supported Rangers (prompting half-jokingly murmured sectarian songs after I revealed the fact that I’m a soon-to-be Irish citizen whose family support Celtic), they had already followed Leicester elsewhere in Europe, cutting short their lads holiday in Benidorm to get the train up for the match.
Though boisterous and loud, these men were genuinely nice guys and later told me that the police had been out to get Leicester fans the day before. Nonetheless they did admit that some were poorly behaved and claimed that a much older fellow Rangers fan from Leicester had received a ten-year ban.
Soon after I heard two guys a few rows in front of me faux-whisper bigoted remarks about their fellow Asian fans, clearly audible both to me and to those discussed—“Shit, look at her in the headscarf—hope they’re not ‘terriyakis’”: this was not in any way a harmless or inclusive joke, but callous mockery.
Moreover, at the end of the flight, a middle-aged fan with Glasgow Rangers tattoos on his arms across the aisle looked behind him at two bearded Asian men and said loudly: “Didn’t realise ‘they’ were sat there, thank God they didn’t put me by them.” No other fan attempted to moderate the behaviour of these imbeciles, some even chuckled, despite the fact that I myself felt (and indeed still do feel) guilty not speaking up. It is unfortunate that the behaviour of a tiny minority, both in public clashes in central Madrid and in subtler, but no less despicable, incidents such as that on the plane, tars people’s impressions of Leicester fans. Yet, this issue is not unique to Leicester.
Across English football, a small, but vocal and poisonous, minority often grows to dictate the atmosphere at events, often only ever being condemned by ordinary fans retrospectively, sometimes even being defended by them until violence erupts and controversy ensues. This gives rise to environments in which the nationalistic bravado of the individual matters more than the good of the entire fan base.
Now more than ever, in times when social media has been proved capable of capturing every idiotic chant or obscene gesture, fans must go above and beyond to police harmful behaviours that would otherwise go unchecked among their fellow fans lest we see a repeat of 2015’s racist actions by Chelsea fans on the metro.
Appeals for positive change through informal moderation among fans themselves and the promotion of anti-violence and anti-discrimination campaigns are what is needed, the reinforcement of stereotypes surrounding football fans and the near-romanticising of the ‘English hooligan’ is not.