Polizei keep the peace with football diplomacy

June 23, 2006

At the World Cup, Geoff Pearson finds keepy-uppy among the tactics to defuse potential disorder

England's first matches of a football tournament are not always a good guide to how things will progress with regard to crowd disorder. For example, the country's first match at Euro 2000 in Belgium passed off trouble free: later there was disorder in Charleroi.

But after three England games, the security plans for this year's World Cup in Germany are now clear. For English authorities, the predominant strategy to prevent disorder has been the imposition of banning orders on convicted and suspected troublemakers. The Home Office announced 3,286 football banning orders (FBOs) for the tournament. Those banned had to surrender their passports and must attend police stations on the days of the England matches.

FBOs are extremely effective at preventing banned supporters attending tournaments abroad. Even if a banned fan managed to avoid football intelligence officers at ports and airports and travel to Germany, English police "spotters", working with local police, would most likely identify them and have them deported.

But FBOs cannot guarantee that there will be no disorder involving English fans. First, most of those banned would probably not have been travelling to the World Cup anyway. Second, incidents of disorder involving English supporters abroad indicate that FBOs are unlikely to have a huge impact. In Belgium at Euro 2000, only 3 per cent of those arrested had been identified by the police as "suspected troublemakers".

This means that how fans are policed on the ground determines whether disorder will occur and, if it does, whether it will escalate.

Research conducted at previous tournaments suggests that police forces that treat visiting supporters in a friendly and non-confrontational manner achieve the best results in terms of crowd management.

In Frankfurt, the venue for England's opening game against Paraguay, policing tactics in the main showed that lessons had been learnt and these have been followed in subsequent matches. Police have been visible but not confrontational, and the strategy has been to interact positively with English supporters: shaking hands, posing for photographs, playing keepy-uppy and, on one occasion, pretending to handcuff an English supporter for a staged photograph taken by his friend. Such positive interaction has been found to reduce the chances of disorder escalating, even in high-risk situations.

On the evening of the first match, there was an incident outside O'Reilly's Irish Bar demonstrating that, despite FBOs, there are English supporters looking for trouble at the tournament and that positive policing is effective. A rumour circulating among the crowd that there was a rival "firm" of hooligans nearby sparked an exodus of about 300 fans, and some bottles were thrown at police. In Belgium 2000 or France 1998, this would have prompted riot police to move in, which would have increased disorder.

But the German police interacted positively with fans, and a high-profile communications officer addressed the crowd to tell them that the rumour was false. As a result, people returned to the bar and good relations with the police remained intact.

Not all incidents were managed so effectively. The evening before the match, there was a minor confrontation between English supporters (20 at most) and German fans returning from watching their match at the big screen in the city centre. Instead of using positive interaction, more than 100 riot police with batons drawn were deployed. They did not baton-charge the English fans, but their presence in the square for the rest of the evening provided a focus for what English aggression there was in the absence of any large groups of German supporters.

The policing of incidents such as these will be the determining factor in whether large-scale disorder occurs as England proceeds to the next round.

Geoff Pearson is a law lecturer and programme director of the football industries MBA at Liverpool University. He is undertaking participant observation of crowd behaviour at the World Cup. He will file another report in the later stage of the World Cup.

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