By Brian Metcalfe
LONDON Ireland's February 15 soccer fixture with England at the Lansdowne Road stadium in Dublin was abandoned after rioting organised by fascist groups. When Ireland scored the first goal after 22 minutes, English fans chanting "No surrender to the IRA" unleashed a hail of missiles on Irish fans and invaded the pitch.
As running battles developed with Gardai riot police, English rioters waved Ulster Loyalist flags and gave Nazi salutes.
The "No surrender to the IRA" chant was more than the Ulster Loyalists' ritual "No surrender" slogan â it was a specific reference to the current Northern Ireland peace process, which according to right-wing Unionist politicians involves capitulation to Sinn Fin and the IRA.
After 20 minutes of disturbances, the match was abandoned and the ground cleared of Irish fans. A hard core of English supporters stayed in the stadium fighting riot police for a further 90 minutes, leading to 40 arrests and 20 serious injuries.
As a result of these events, for the first time, the fascist tactic of building support among football fans through organising violence and racist chanting has been widely acknowledged in the British media, although not by John Major's government.
The riot followed hard on the heels of a national uproar over events at the January 27 match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace, in which United star and French international Eric Cantona became involved in a touch-line fight with a fascist sympathiser. After Cantona was dismissed from the pitch for a foul tackle on a Palace player, a man ran towards him shouting racist abuse, to be rewarded by a kung-fu style drop-kick from the volatile French player â well-known as a sympathiser of the French Communist Party, incidentally.
A massive press witch-hunt against Cantona followed, despite revelations that the fan had links with the Nazi British National Party and convictions for racist violence. Cantona was also suspended by Manchester United for the remainder of the soccer season. Manchester United supporters who belong to Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) immediately launched a campaign on the theme "Eric the Red says kick racism out of football".
Behind these recent events is the work of one far-right organisation in particular â Combat 18, a Nazi terror group (its name derives from the first and eighth letters of the alphabet, A and H, the initials of the group's hero). Column 18 acts as the "security" organisation within the British National Party, and is responsible for dozens of violent attacks on black and Asian people.
Key leaders of Combat 18 also organise the most violent of the football gangs, the Chelsea Headhunters. Another base of support for Combat 18 involves supporters of Leeds United.
Both Chelsea and Leeds are notorious for the racism of their fans. When Chelsea play the north London club Tottenham Hotspur, a team with many Jewish supporters, Chelsea fans routinely chant, "Spurs are on the way to Auschwitz". At many British grounds, black players can expect constant racial abuse.
Racism among fans is far from unchallenged. The national network of hundreds of local "fanzines", written and distributed by the fans themselves, is overwhelmingly anti-racist and anti-fascist. The only national fanzine, When Saturday Comes, carries anti-racist material in nearly every issue.
The fanzine movement is an example of the increasing self-organisation and revolt of the hundreds of thousands of mainly young people who attend professional soccer games each Saturday.
Deepening commercialisation of the game, and its growing subordination to international media interests like Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV, are squeezing out working-class fans. All-seater stadiums, an innovation in Britain, have been used as an excuse to raise the price of tickets to an average of A$25, way beyond what many young and unemployed people can regularly afford.
Increasing parts of football grounds are devoted to private boxes, rented out to firms for business "hospitality" at hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. The result is that many working-class fans are reduced to watching their heroes on TV, with the added complication that major games are being wrenched from mainstream TV channels by Murdoch's millions, forcing fans to subscribe to Sky TV's satellite or cable sports channel, at a cost of more than A$50 per month.
Either way, watching first-class football, live or on TV, now costs serious bucks. (A similar fate is befalling cricket, with all matches from Australia and the West Indies exclusively on the Murdoch channel.)
Radical soccer supporters are responding with a growing movement called "Reclaim the Game", after a pamphlet of that name by well-known Queens Park Rangers supporter John Reid. Reid, a member of the left-wing organisation Militant Labour and a supporter of the YRE, says: "It is inevitable that the nation's most popular game should reflect the major developments in society, and that includes the fight against racism.
"In the past year campaigns against racism and fascism have involved supporters of many European clubs, notably the Hamburg club Saint Pauli and the Rome club Lazio. But the willingness of hundreds of English fans at the Irish international match to follow the lead of a few hard-core fascists shows how much work anti-racists still have to do in Britain."