For a few years now English football has been able to take the high ground. When it has come to trouble, and particularly on racism, the country has been more sinned against than sinner.
It was an odd state for those who can remember the 70s and 80s, or even for those who had lived under the shadow of those times. It was also with an unwelcome sigh, no doubt, that the familiar feeling was greeted again after the events of 11 July.
The Football Association has been served with a two-match ban on spectators, with one match suspended, after the anarchy that surrounded the Euro 2020 final at Wembley. This means one relatively low-key Nations League match will be played without fans. The FA will also be forced to cough up a €100,00 (£84,500) fine along with losing all the match-day revenue it might have earned. In these straitened Covid times it is tempting to think the latter consequence may hit harder.
The punishment, applied by Uefa, does not answer any number of unresolved questions about the events at Wembley. First and foremost those questions relate to the state of policing outside the stadium that day; before, during and after the match. They also take in the security plan – arranged between the FA and Metropolitan police, signed off by Uefa – that led to so many people entering the stadium without a ticket.
The questions could be extended to other matches at Wembley during the Euros, particularly the semi-final against Denmark and the unsavoury experiences recounted there. Baroness Casey’s inquiry into 11 July, a report expected before Christmas, may deliver some answers. Then again, given the stubborn silence from the FA and the Met that followed the events, maybe it won’t.
One broader, more intangible question, is about reputation. What did those horrible scenes do to the name of English football, so painstakingly restored, to the FA as high-functioning administrators of a world-class stadium, to London as a global entertainment destination? To take them in reverse order, the increasingly bulging streets of the English capital suggest London is very much still a place people want to come to, an open city where you can have a good time whoever you are, particularly if you like a drink.
For the FA it is a bit more painful, another blow after a series of them. It lost its chairman last year after he made a series of racially charged remarks as embarrassing as they were insensitive. Dozens more staff have left, the cost of Covid cuts, an attempt to fill a £250m hole. All this while the FA has been doing good and valuable work: the Leadership Diversity Code led by Paul Elliott, Edleen John’s progress (largely behind closed doors) in taking on social media abuse and the generational success of the England men’s coach, Gareth Southgate, who also vindicated the FA’s once mocked “DNA” blueprint. The chief executive, Mark Bullingham, has made a quiet but forceful mark.
What happened on 11 July will have sorely hurt everyone at the FA. They know it has rightly rekindled doubts around credibility and competence that the organisation has worked hard to put in the past. That the ban was announced the day before parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee conducts a session investigating the “feasibility and funding” of the UK and Ireland 2030 World Cup bid could not be much more apt.
There is more than enough blame to go around, though, and in asking what 11 July did to English football, there are the people who caused the trouble. The last time England were censured by Uefa was at the turn of the millennium. A stadium ban was threatened after fans ran on to the pitch during a qualifier against Turkey and racially abused players and visiting fans.
The incident at the Stadium of Light prompted fears of an English hooligan revival. The “Wembley jib” – the queasily cheery label given to this year’s events – has not as yet. Uefa’s punishment, in fact, treats the English like any other transgressive nation, not an exception. It was more lenient than that laid down against Hungary for fans’ repeated homophobic and racist behaviour during the Euros. Perhaps this is because, while the events of 11 July were frightening and deplorable, they were not expressly about violence. They seemed more the actions of young men who wanted to savour an experience and did not care what happened in the process.
Uefa’s punishment shows England still has a problem but maybe its nature has changed.