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Sep 26, 2003

England's embargo

When England take on Turkey for their decisive Euro 2004 qualifying clash in Instanbul - their most important match since the World Cup - they will do so in a stadium filled exclusively with Turkish fans.

The FA's fear at the prospect of being kicked out of the lucrative European Championships because of hooliganism has lead to them taking unprecedented steps to prevent England fans travelling to Fenerbahce's Sukru Saracoglu Stadium - a situation that should never, ever be repeated.

The two teams may share a troubled history - two Leeds fans were killed in Istanbul in 2000 then England were fined £75,000 after incidents marred the 2-0 win over the Turks at the Stadium of Light last April - but preventing law abiding fans from watching their side because of a minority of Neanderthal troublemakers is not the way forward.

The FA's first steps to prevent fans from travelling to the match were to reject England's ticket allocation, warn fans not to travel to Turkey and threaten to serve a life ban on anybody who went to the game.

These sanctions were also imposed for September's Euro 2004 qualifying clash with Macedonia (after all it's obviously a match fraught with danger, although they did burn the St George's cross), however, around 300 fans made the trip to Skopje but failed to pillage the local town and even had the audacity to share a cordial pre-match drink with Macedonians.

Fearing that similar scenes could occur in Instanbul the FA stepped up its 'do not travel' campaign to saturation point and England manager Sven Goran Eriksson even suggested that England fans could die if they travelled to Turkey.

The Swede later apologised for this slur but not before Turkish soccer chiefs had reacted. FA chief Haluk Ulusoy allegedly made references to Liverpool fans' involvement in the Heysel Stadium disaster, when 39 people died and English teams were banned from Europe for five-years.

The media continued to publicise the slanging match between the two warring factions and eventually UEFA was forced to schedule a summit so that English and Turkish soccer chiefs could quash the tension that was brewing ahead October's clash.

Ironically the meeting, designed to sooth the battered egos of those in the halls of power, came a day after Blackburn Rovers, and their fans, travelled to Ankara to play Turkish side Genclerbirligi in a UEFA Cup match that passed without incident, although admittedly a club clash in Ankara has less potential for trouble than an international in Istanbul.

At the UEFA summit in Nyon, Switzerland, both sides were warned about their behaviour and chief executive Gerhard Aigner emphasised the responsibility of both players and staff in keeping things calm on and off the pitch.

The FA's refusal of their ticket allocation means that there will be no segregation in the stadium and it was announced at Thursday's summit that a triple cordon of police will be employed to surround the stadium and check IDs to prevent Englishmen entering.

Fans create an electric atmosphere in Turkey
Fans create an electric atmosphere in Turkey

While there is obviously a need to prevent trouble in a country whose fans are renowned for their volatile and fanatical behaviour at football matches - but lets not forget it's the England fans that UEFA have put on trial, not the Turks - there must be a better solution than the current extreme measures.

Attempts to prevent England fans from travelling to Macedonia - a game that succeeded three incident free home games and an away game in South Africa that passed without trouble - failed but the Istanbul clash threatens to set a dangerous precedent for matches with a history of rivalry.

If successful, in terms of the FA's goals, what is to stop English football's governing body from repeating these sanctions whenever they feel a bit twitchy?

A clash against arch-rivals Argentina and Germany could be next. Or England fans could be banned from travelling to countries whose fans have a history of trouble, such as Italy.

After all, unruly Serie A crowds have been subjected to bombardments of tear gas from riot police, many of their Ultras are openly racist, mopeds and fridges have been thrown from upper tiers of stadiums and a Napoli fan tragically died at the weekend.

England captain David Beckham suffered a shower of bottles in Malaga whilst trying to take a corner for Real Madrid on Sunday so let's cross Spain off the list too.

Genuine attempts to stamp out hooliganism are a must but the FA's actions criminalise ALL England fans, while also suggesting that Turkey are incapable of ensuring the safety of travelling supporters.

UEFA's tough stance against England - when it seems other countries can escape unscathed for worse offences - also has much to do with the FA's reaction to the threat of being thrown out of Euro 2004.

It is imperative that something must be done to prevent the problems of racism and violence but banning fans altogether is not the answer.

This must not be allowed to happen again.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.