The streets were full of violence, just as I had been warned. But my first moment of acute personal fear came when I thought I was home free, when, late at night, I hopped a local train that could take me out of the craziness of Düsseldorf to Cologne and back to the safety of my hotel room in half an hour.
The train was full of Germans, happy Germans. Their national soccer team had just beaten Denmark 2-0 in Gelsenkirchen. And it seemed a good journalistic ploy—if not a self-defensive one—to temper my native Welsh accent and affect the ignorance of soccer common in my adopted country, the U.S.
"What is all the trouble in Düsseldorf about?" I asked a man sitting opposite me on the train.
The man, about 40, smiled pleasantly and said in precise English, "Why don't you——off, you——American Jew. And send us your sister if you've got a pretty one." He had five friends with him, staring hard. I moved fast into the next car, got off at the next stop and took a cab to Cologne.
June 26, 1988
Willkommen to West Germany, as they say, to the finals of the quadrennial European Football (soccer, to Americans) Championships, a two-week, eight-team affair spread over several cities. And welcome also to the dark world of the soccer hooligan, who is now to be found in virtually every country in Western Europe. His behavior goes far beyond what would be tolerated in any sporting arena in the U.S.
On the morning of June 14 it seemed as if the English, and the English only, had occupied Düsseldorf, though no trouble had yet broken out. But the potential was surely there. It had been three years since English fans had had a team to follow to a major event on the Continent. On May 29, 1985, hooligan fans of the Liverpool club clashed with Italian fans of the Juventus club in Heysel Stadium in Brussels. During the rioting a wall gave way and 39 people were killed. Since then, English club teams have been banned by the European Football Union from playing on the Continent. This month's visit by the national team, to which the ban does not apply, was a rare opportunity for English fans to mix it up with European soccer supporters since the mayhem in Belgium. At the Hauptbahnhof, Düsseldorf's main train station, there were the usual rows of kids passed out or sleeping rough, wrapped in the Union Jack or wearing T-shirts with aggressive slogans: THESE COLOURS DON'T RUN and ENGLAND INVASION OF GERMANY 1988. One said, simply, RAGE.
Soon the spacious Konrad-Adenauer-Platz outside the station began filling up with British fans. From the jammed Schlosser Alt Bahnhof bar across from the station came sporadic, obscene singing in English, punctuated by the smashing of glass. The other dominant sound was a distant howling of police cruiser sirens. The atmosphere was building like a thunderhead in Kansas.
The West German police knew that there would be trouble at these finals, and they had prepared well for it. "We have computer information on practically every one of the 883,000 people expected for the championship," boasted one senior officer. Before the games began, a rehearsal had been staged in the Olympic Stadium in Munich in which 100 German policemen, dressed as British hooligans and yelling slogans in somewhat guttural English, were charged by 250 baton-swinging riot cops backed up by police dogs and mounted officers.
The June 15 match between England and the Netherlands was expected to touch off the worst violence. No other country has fans who are as mad and bad as England's hooligans (the English call them yobboes or yobs, which is backward slang for boy), but some of Holland's and West Germany's fans come close with their neo-Nazi overtones. Holland's hooligans chant anti-Semitic slogans. West German rowdies tend to shave their heads and wear the Maltese cross of the German navy, a substitute for the forbidden swastika.
At an earlier game, on June 12 in Stuttgart, between England and Ireland, the score for arrests had been England 89, Germany 10 and Ireland 6. More remarkable was the 1-0 win for the underdog Irish. But the real oddity was that after the game, in the Stuttgart railroad concourse, English and Irish hooligans fought side by side when they were attacked by some 200 German skinheads equipped with canisters of CS gas (Mace).
As the English moved off to the trains that would take them to Düsseldorf for their game against the Dutch, they chanted at the Germans, "Two World Wars and one World Cup, you box-headed bastards." They were referring to English victories over Germany. But they left Stuttgart without their King Yobbo, 33-year-old Paul Scarrott, who had been picked up by German police for jumping bail in England and was deported. Scarrott has served 13 jail sentences for offenses ranging from simple assault to inciting violence. "I'm Britain's vilest football hooligan, and I'm proud of it," he crowed when he got home. He has FOREST, short for Nottingham Forest, the club he supports, tattooed inside his lower lip.
For the game between the English and the Dutch in Düsseldorf, the police put a careful plan into effect. On game day every vehicle entering West Germany from Holland would be stopped at the border, searched, and the driver given precise instructions on how to reach Düsseldorf's Rheinstadion, over what was called Route Orange (orange being the Dutch national color). The idea was to keep Dutch fans from coming into contact with the English, most of whom were arriving by train. A massive police presence of 2,800 officers would be assembled at the stadium. It was said to be the largest police operation ever mounted in Europe.
The police seemed to give less thought to violence on the eve of the game, and it was then that the worst occurred. The fighting was mostly between English and German fans, with minimal participation by the Dutch. The atmosphere near the Düsseldorf train station had grown more and more ominous as the English fans became drunker and more aggressive. Then, just before dark, several hundred celebrating Germans arrived on trains from Gelsenkirchen. By the end of the ensuing battle, the great glass doors of the station were smashed, the station itself was a shambles, shops and cars in Düsseldorf's Old Town district were wrecked, and hundreds of people had been injured or arrested.
The poet Matthew Arnold had it right. These were ignorant armies clashing by night. But let one English yobbo give his account of the fighting:
"We was just standin' around the Platz when the Germans came off the train and went for us. They 'ad CS gas and flare guns and steel rods. Then we got back an' 'ad it with "em. They was all tooled up [armed]. The Bill [police] didn't 'ave no clue. They tried to break it up, but not a chance. Then we went at the Krauts again. This was a big one. This is the biggest I was in. The Germans had all the weapons, but we did 'em, din't we? We ran them Krauts five times, right into the Old Town. 'Course, the Old Bill was waiting for us there, but, see, we wanted to be drawn into the trap. We wanted to get the Germans...."
There was no trouble at the stadium the next afternoon, although had it not been for Marco van Basten, who scored a hat trick for the Netherlands to put England away 3-1 and, more important, dampen the morale of the English hooligans, things might have been different.
The police were out in much greater numbers after the game. They corralled a few thousand yobboes in the station yard and held the Germans at bay across a road. At one point the Speziale Einsatz Kommando, a crack army unit, appeared. "If those guys put on their helmets, disappear," somebody said. It soon became apparent that the young Germans were singing songs about England that had gone out of fashion around 1945. Stretcher bearers came and went. A youth was carried off with a neck wound, and the police started to hit everybody in sight.
An English-speaking voice on the P.A. system in the station offered trains to Aachen, Ostend, anywhere, and the war ended with a last stand at Gate 5.
The next morning there was a strange admission from Düsseldorf's mayor, Klaus Bungert. "We have arrested 371 people," he said. "Only 11 are English, the rest are Germans. We are saying that the German fans were the worst yesterday and the day before. The Germans had no tickets. They were not interested in the match. They came to make trouble."
That statement will not please the English hooligans. They will take it to mean that they lost the contest, that they are no longer the vilest fans in Europe. Their team, meanwhile, lost a third time, 3-1 to the U.S.S.R., in Frankfurt on Saturday. More street fighting followed that game, though it was mild by Düsseldorf standards—just 80 arrests, a couple of bars and restaurants wrecked.
The real soccer fans of Britain have lost the most. Because of these riots, the English Football Association will now not even go through the formality of applying for readmission to the European Football Union, from which it was banned after Heysel. Worse still, the ban may be extended to the national team, which would keep the English from World Cup play as well.
Almost incredibly, because of the actions of a few thousand drunks, the nation that invented soccer may not be permitted to play the game as a nation.