The news, as it filtered through, was all too familiar. As a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan, I’ve travelled to many of the countries of Europe to watch my team in action, and can proudly say I’ve never seen our supporters disgrace themselves. But as I woke this morning to the awful radio reports from Rome, my lillywhite heart sank.
The Daily Mail, that loathsome attack dog of conservative alarmism, usually so ready to stick the boot into English football supporters abroad, treating them with a level of contempt equal only to when describing asylum seekers, homosexuals and unemployed single parents, were most bold with their headline.
“Tottenham fans STABBED in attack by hooligans, wielding knives, baseball bats, belts and knuckle dusters ahead of Lazio clash,” screamed the Mail’s website, breaking the news that 10 Spurs fans had been injured ahead of the Europa League match at the Stadio Olimpico. As I write, one of those Tottenham supporters, reportedly Ashley Mills, lies in hospital hundreds of miles from his home and family, with serious injuries to an artery.
The Mail, taking a surprisingly rational stance, went on to quote Marco Manzi, the landlord of the Drunken Ship Pub, where the attack had taken place. Manzi explained that the English fans had been well behaved and enjoying a drink, when a group of around 100 Lazio ultras – a traditionally right-wing group with a long history of violent incidents – turned up on scooters and laid siege to the pub. The Tottenham supporters are said to have attempted to flee, but were attacked outside, leaving one slumped in an alleyway, bleeding heavily from a knife wound.
The pub, in the Campo Fiori, is in one of Rome’s main squares – traditional meeting points for English fans ahead of European away matches – and was the scene of a similar incident in 2006, when three Middlesbrough fans were stabbed.
Perhaps, while our thoughts are with the young man who is seriously ill in a Rome hospital, we should take a small amount of heart from the fact that firstly this is not another tale of English fans running riot in a European city, while the locals cower in fear. And secondly, from the fact that it isn’t being reported as such by this country’s media.
The English game has largely got its act together following the black period that was the 1970s and 80s, with the support of wider society; and events such as those in Rome are now rarely seen on British soil. Thankfully, public perception of English supporters abroad is finally beginning to shift in line with the reality of what happens on these trips. I’ve been with Spurs fans in Leverkusen, Seville, Prague, Krakow, Amsterdam and Milan and never witnessed scenes of disorder or violence.
Margaret Thatcher’s infamous question to an FA executive following the Hillsbrough disaster, of “What are you going to do about your hooligans?” was incisively and accurately answered with “Mrs Thatcher, when are you going to get your hooligans out of our stadiums?”
And thanks to the Taylor Report, CCTV, all-seater stadia, better stewarding and a positive relationship between clubs and police, following the vile and unacceptable events and subsequent cover-up at Hillsbrough, that has largely happened.
But why isn’t it happening in Rome? And why do the Italian FA and authorities, and UEFA continue to condone a pattern of obviously pre-meditated, violent behaviour in and outside the grounds.
Tottenham had issued a warning to their supporters prior to the Lazio game, that they should avoid the Ponte Milvio, and for their own safety use shuttle buses to the ground. It wasn’t an isolated, freak incident that left that Spurs fan in hospital fighting for his life, if anything it was a likelihood.
And it’s easy for non-football supporters to say “If the danger is that high, just don’t go. Avoid the risk”. But why should we be denied the right to travel, to indulge our passions for visiting new countries, and for watching our team play on some of the continent’s grandest stages? It would be like telling music lovers to avoid gigs and festivals because they’ll probably get crushed to death.
During the match between Spurs and Lazio at White Hart Lane in September, a game attended by UEFA president Michel Platini, a large section of Lazio fans loudly and repeatedly racially abused Tottenham players, raining down monkey chants and offensive songs on the likes of Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon. Tottenham complained to Europe’s governing body. The result? A €40,000 fine.
To put that figure in context, Lazio’s annual wage bill is €66.2 million, with the German striker Miroslav Klose earning €2.1m.
In 2005, footage circulated the globe of Lazio’s Paulo Di Canio giving a fascist salute from the pitch to the adulation of the Ultras. Lazio was Mussolini’s club and the right-wing connotations have never been shaken off – how much the club has tried is open to debate.
But quite apart from the club’s roots in the fascist ideology, it doesn’t take much research to find a shameful catalogue of previous stabbings of English supporters in the Italian capital. Liverpool fans suffered knife wounds in 1984 and 2001; and in 2007 13 Manchester United fans were hospitalised after being ambushed.
So the question to Lazio, the Italian authorities, the country’s football association and to UEFA, for the sake of Ashley Mills and his family, and for all other football supporters visiting Rome and endangering their lives, has to be “What are you going to do about your hooligans?”.