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Say 'Cheerio' To English Manners

They are known by various names: thugs, louts, even fans.

Whatever they're called, England's soccer hooligans are back in the thick of trouble.

This time, they are causing havoc at the World Cup in France, bringing shame to their country and reviving a scourge that some call the "English disease."

Rioting in Marseille before and during Monday's England-Tunisia game was the latest example of a bent for violence that has been associated with English fans for decades.

"England seems to have invented (hooliganism), exported it," said Keith Cooper, spokesman for the international soccer federation FIFA. "Other people have picked it up and run with it. But England seem to be intent on remaining world champions at this sort of problem."

Prime Minster Tony Blair condemned the fans responsible for the Marseille violence as "a complete disgrace to England" and said their actions could harm the country's bid for the 2006 World Cup. Sports Minister Tony Banks attacked the troublemakers as "drunken, brain-dead louts."

Headlines on national newspapers Monday carried the same theme:

"A Disgrace for England."

"Fans Shame England."

"Shamed Again by the Louts."

On the streets of London, ordinary fans were ashamed and appalled.

"They're wrecking the good character of the normal football fans who pay to go and support our team play," said newspaper vendor Tony Seoparidi, who believes the offenders should receive mandatory jail terms.

Jeremy Langman, wearing a wig in the colors of the England flag after the 2-0 victory over Tunisia, said the violence was a product of English society's repressed attitudes.

"There aren't too many outlets for people in England to release their emotions and this football hooliganism is a product of that," he said. "I think English people tend to be obsessive about football and about other things, like Princess Diana and because of that, certain people seem to go to extremes."

Soccer violence has been a problem in many countries, with Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina among the worst hit. But what is it about English fans that causes them to booze and brawl their way into so much trouble whenever they travel abroad for a soccer game?

Experts cite alcohol, xenophobia, extreme nationalism, class and cultural reasons. Hooligans have also been tied to right-wing political groups, with evidence of ringleaders coordinating the violence with military precision.

And the reputation of English fans precedes them. Often they are targeted by foreign fans and police.

But, mostly, the troublemakers are viewed as drunken thugs just looking for an excuse to fight.

"I don't want to hear any kind of examination of whether these people had bad childhoods, or were dropped on their heads when they were kids," Home Secretary Jack Straw said Monday.

"I've seen football hooligans myself. I notice that they alwayhave a huge amount of money, both to travel and to buy large amounts of alcohol, get completely drunk and then commit this kind of act and then offer excuses."

By contrast, Scottish fans, who also like their drink, have a reputation for merriment rather than mayhem. That's why hooliganism is considered an "English" problem, not a British or Scottish one.

The lowest point came in 1985, when 39 people, mostly Italian fans, died at Heysel Stadium in Brussels after English fans rioted before the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus. English clubs were subsequently banned from European competition until the 1990-91 season.

Since then, soccer violence has been largely contained at matches in England, but fans continue to stir up trouble when they travel abroad.

Graham Kelly, chief executive of the English Football Association, said the problem will continue "as long as people are allowed to leave the country, singing and drinking in bars for 24 hours."

But Banks, the sports minister, said it's impossible to impose a blanket ban.

"We cannot confiscate passports on the grounds of suspicion," he said. "We have to find a way of dealing with them without curtailing the freedoms of the majority."

Richard Fenton, a sociologist and lecturer at Southampton Institute, described hooliganism as "a cultural thing predominantly the male, working-class culture, where the macho image prevails."

Fenton said there were "dedicated hooligans" who come from political extremes but who fit in under the banner of the Union Jack and can steer a crowd in a bad direction.

"The flip side of patriotism is an intolerance of foreigners a `we need to show them who is best,"' he said.

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