Late switch in tactics ends in own goal

July 7, 2006

In the latest of his dispatches from the World Cup in Germany, Geoff Pearson laments the strong-arm methods adopted by police in Cologne

England may not have come home with the World Cup, but British police working in Germany have brought back some important lessons. Although England's first two matches were successfully policed, there was crowd trouble before the team's 1-0 victory over Ecuador in Stuttgart. Some 500 English supporters were arrested by German police in two days. This may have come as a surprise to viewers back home, but for those who witnessed events in Cologne before England's match against Sweden, it was not totally unexpected. The day before the Sweden match, policing tactics changed from the low-level positive interaction that had been successful in Frankfurt and Nuremburg to the deployment of riot police using pepper spray and baton charges.

The incident that brought about this change was minor and drink related. At about midnight on the eve of the Sweden match, an English supporter seriously injured himself falling off a statue in the Old Market. A small group of police arrived to assist English supporters who were helping the individual, but the situation deteriorated when a group of riot police arrived at the scene at the same time as more England supporters. Wrongly believing their colleagues to be in danger, the riot police used pepper spray to clear the area. Seeing their fellow fans under attack, some English supporters started to throw bottles at the police. Within moments a large-scale deployment of riot police baton-charged English supporters, indiscriminately striking fans in an attempt to clear the square. After the match riot police were again deployed, and the apparent arrival of a "firm" of FC Cologne supporters looking to confront the English caused further confusion. Neither incident was widely reported in the UK, probably because of a lack of quality television footage.

The incidents in Cologne and the arrests in Stuttgart were not the result of a deterioration in the behaviour of English fans, nor of the arrival of English hooligans, but an alteration in policing tactics. Whereas in the earlier matches in Frankfurt and Nuremburg the police had turned a blind eye to low-level antisocial behaviour such as anti-German chanting, the Cologne and Stuttgart police seemed more willing to forcefully break up groups of English supporters and reclaim public areas. Inevitably, such interventions provided an opportunity for conflict.

Another problem has been the unclear role of British police officers on the ground. Three types of UK police were sent to Germany: British Transport Police visible at ports and train stations in host cities; undercover spotters gathering information on English supporters causing trouble to secure banning orders at a later date; and uniformed officers patrolling the host cities with their German counterparts. This sounds like a considerable UK police presence, but in reality, once away from the train station, there has been little interaction with English fans. Spotters are largely anonymous and the uniformed officers in the cities have not been given any powers by the local authorities, unlike the transport police.

This means they have no means of protection (batons, stab-jackets and so on) and from a health-and-safety point of view cannot become involved in preventing disorder. This is in stark contrast to Dutch officers at the tournament, who are highly visible and were seen taking an active role in arrests before the Holland v Ivory Coast match in Stuttgart. An opportunity to prevent disorder has clearly been missed.

The lessons from the disorder witnessed at the World Cup are fundamental to my research: that it is possible to successfully police large groups of drunken English supporters through positive interaction and the setting of realistic tolerance limits; and that Football Banning Orders are not the cure for football crowd disorder abroad. Whether these lessons will be learnt for the equally high-risk European Championships in Austria-Switzerland in 2008 is another matter.

Geoff Pearson is a law lecturer and programme director of the football industries MBA at Liverpool University. He has been undertaking participant observation of crowd behaviour at the World Cup.

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