However, in many cases there is an umbilical link between the most vociferous fans’ groups — often with a predilection for violence — and those that run the clubs. In Brazil and Argentina, that manifests itself in clubs subsidizing tickets for violent fans’ groups. Sometimes, it is hard to tell who is in charge.
This is also the case in Italy, where groups of ultras revel in their ability to set the agenda at their clubs and demand that they are listened to. A crackdown on racist chanting has been extended to so-called “regional” abuse, which in turn has led to a backlash with the ultra groups trying to reassert what they see as their rights.
“We have a consumerist football culture here, but overseas they live their football. That’s quite interesting, but has elements that are very unpleasant,” Powar said. “We see a particular type of fan culture — a reversion to the ultras culture, a lifestyle for young people. This [the violence] is a perversion of that.”
Football Supporters’ Federation chief executive Kevin Miles believes that the reputation of British fans forged in the 1970s and 1980s still lingers, with rival fans — and often police forces too — reacting accordingly.
“The reputation is a lot easier to obtain than to get rid of. There is still a widespread perception in other countries that you can make a name for yourself by having a pop at the English,” Miles said. “All English football fans want is to be policed according to their behavior rather than their reputation. There’s a responsibility on the part of the countries and the clubs hosting games to ensure visiting fans can enjoy their trip.”
Police forces in some of those countries are increasingly looking to the British experience for clues as to how to deal with their own hooligan problem. It is no coincidence that the lists of Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) security delegates are stuffed with English ex-policemen.
While there is no hard evidence that the problem is getting worse in continental Europe, with English fans habitually targeted in certain cities down the years, incidents are more visible than ever.
In one typical incident, two Italians were jailed last month for their part in an unprovoked attack on Tottenham Hotspur fans last year, when SS Lazio and AS Roma followers launched an unprovoked attack in a pub, brandishing knives, metal poles and knuckle dusters and leaving one stabbed fan seriously injured.
The frustration for supporters’ groups and for the clubs is that there are certain destinations — Naples and Rome being two — where trouble seems almost guaranteed, yet little progress seems to have been made toward resolving the problem.
Complex, intractable issues demand a complex, multilayered response.
“The economic crisis, for sure, has made things worse. In many countries, governance is shambolic. Many clubs are badly run and run by individuals who have made their money in dubious ways or have dubious political affiliations,” Powar said.
After much pressure, UEFA and FIFA have both vowed to get tough not only on crowd misbehavior, but on extremism and discrimination within stadiums. Stadium closures and heavy fines have been levied in recent months on both national associations and clubs for the misconduct of their fans.