Euro 2020(1): The Final, Part One – Cause, Culpability & Consequence
When assessing what we should learn from an event, it’s easy to get trapped in a cul-de-sac. Yesterday evening at Wembley, and more broadly throughout parts of the city all day, the final of the European Championships descended into a shambles, and even though football hooliganism connected to the England team is a decades-old problem, to see it on such a scale as we witnessed last night shouldn’t be easily written off as “a return to the dark days of the 1970s.” In being so glib in our response to this sort of incident, we go some way towards seeing a repeat of it in the future.
In order to try to understand what happened in London yesterday afternoon, we need to be clear in our definition between cause and culpability. Causes aren’t directly responsible for what happens, but they exacerbate situations that might otherwise be controllable. As we’ve seen on repeated occasions in the past in this country, it can only take a short sequence of bad decision-making, poor infrastructure and complacency to turn what should be a festival into something that could turn into a disaster and, tempting though it is to jab a finger of blame in one direction and one direction only, to do so is usually to overlook vital contributing factors.
The causes of what happened at Wembley yesterday are manifold, from a culture which revels in its own immaturity and inability to enjoy itself to specifics of stadium management. We’ll come on to the former of these shortly. In terms of the latter, there have been multiple reports of systematic failures at Wembley yesterday afternoon, from people who were there. When the first shaky phone footage of men breaking down barriers in an attempt to get into the stadium came through yesterday afternoon, it was notable how little security there was, and how hopelessly ineffective it was.
Flimsy metal barriers and security which seemed to have been trained in how to wear a high-visibility jacket and little else offered little resistance to those determined to break it down. The near-complete absence of any police only added to the feeling that all concerned had just kept their fingers crossed and hoped for the best, and such a lack of security yesterday afternoon was all the more eyebrow-raising when we consider that the stadium wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near full on account of Covid guidelines. Riddle me this: a football match was being played which was being widely-trailed as the most important played in this country for 55 years. Everybody knew the stadium would be at no more than two-thirds capacity. Who on earth decided that the lightest possible touch security would be in any way adequate?
And although we should not blame the kick-off time and specifics for what happened yesterday, it seems likely that they were exacerbating factors in the extent of the trouble. Eight o’clock in the evening in the middle of the summer in London would likely be a tinderbox at the best of times. Coming as we reach what many hope will be the end of lockdown restrictions, and in a country in which the political atmosphere is currently beyond febrile, keeping everything exactly as it was originally was and hoping for the best seems at best naïve, and at worst downright negligent. We all know that it shouldn’t have to be this way. But knowing that it likely will be doesn’t mitigate not doing anything to prevent it escalating out of control.
We need to talk about the English. Yes, there is football hooliganism in other countries. Yes, those causing trouble last night probably were a minority of us as a whole. No, it shouldn’t be necessary to even think about changing kick-off times or venues on the basis of the worst excesses of a nation’s football culture. We know, we know.
What we don’t know, however, is how we can possibly even begin to remove this cancer at the heart of of our culture. After all, crowd trouble has been following the England team around for more than forty years, now. Were there a quick fix to this that actually made any significant difference to people’s behaviour, it would have been done by now. Indeed, perhaps the most important single piece of advice we can give to anybody who actually does want to fix this would be ignore anyone offering quick and simplistic fixes.
Because this shit runs deep. It permeates our culture like a diarrhoea woodstain, a wilful celebration of stupidity and pig ignorance on an island so insecure that it has to boo other countries’ national anthems before sporting events, and which is still hopelessly culturally over-dependent glorifying a war that finished more than seven and a half decades ago, which, despite the evidence of its very own eyes, persists with the laughable idea that it is somehow superior to others. It’s right there in front of us, everywhere we look, and from the very top down.
Were they capable of feeling shame, we’d believe that the government was feeling ashamed of itself this morning. Yesterday afternoon, though, was yet another low point in the disintegration of a country governed by individuals who, by almost any metric you’d care to use, represent the absolute worst of us. There’s no point in calling out the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister for their hypocrisy, however cathartic doing so might feel. They’re not stupid. They know exactly what they’re doing.
This government has been dog-whistling to the worst of us for years, and doubtless they’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how many of us want to hear and embrace their worst instincts, and today the likelihood that they’re actually introspecting over this in any way whatsoever is so slight as to be laughable. It’s been so self-evident that it shouldn’t even need to be said how shameless they are. The Prime Minister can “reject” the accusations of race-baiting all he likes. There are volumes of evidence which confirm the contrary. And yes, yes we should also blame those who voted for them, and those who uphold what pass for Conservative “values” in 2021 by continuing to support this hateful government. It’s hardly as though they aren’t explicit in letting us know what these “values” are, after all.
And beyond cause and culpability, there have to be consequences. Those who showered London with broken glass and punches, and those who showered social media with grotesque abuse, have to be met with the full force of the law. There should be no stone left unturned in identifying every single person responsible for yesterday’s latest disgrace. A government that saw being “tough on law and order” as being anything more than yet another useful catchphrase might even spot an opportunity here, to demonstrate that this strand of our culture has to be eliminated if it isn’t to pull us apart altogether. But why would they? Why should they? They keep on getting away with it, just as the England fans do, and every time they do get away with it, it only emboldens them further.
For the FA, there will at least will some degree of consequences to face. Before it’s even really got started, the 2030 World Cup bid is over. How on earth could a country that witnessed scenes like yesterday’s be entrusted with the World Cup finals in just nine years time? We need a twenty-year timeout from even talking about hosting major events in order to try to cleanse the poison from our culture, and there’s a strong suspcion that at this late stage in the game, we won’t be able to clean up all this toxicity. I don’t know how you can teach a nation of 53m people humility, respect, generosity and tolerance especially when they explicitly reject any attempt to do so. Until this has been figured out, though, we should probably stop trying to force our self-defined ‘superiority’ upon others, at the very, very least.
The players don’t deserve this. The manager doesn’t deserve it. Those who abhor what we’ve seen of the English over the last few weeks, months or years don’t deserve it. But all of these groups are peripheral figures to those who simply don’t care. Why did Tory MP Natalie Elphicke send Marcus Rashford a shitty tweet last night? Because she could, secure in the knowledge that there would be no consequences. Why did the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary dog-whistle booing an anti-racist initiative? Because they could, secure in the knowledge that there would be no consequences. Why did hundreds or thousands of England fans try to smash their way into Wembley last night? Because they could, secure in the knowledge that there would be no consequences.
So no, I don’t know what the answer to all of this, and I’m far from certain that even if I did, anybody would be that interested in listening anyway, because at the moment this consequence-free lifestyle seems to be suiting rather too many people rather too well.