I think it’s fair to say that most of us who were at this summer’s World Cup came away from Germany with fond memories of a tournament which, as expected, was superbly well organised but which was mainly memorable for the festive mood which swept the whole country as the host nation exceeded all expectations by reaching the semi-finals. The vast majority of the visiting fans also did their bit to add to the gaiety and, all things considered, the football was pretty entertaining too.
With relief, we also noted that the much-predicted hooligan blood-letting at high-risk games involving England, Germany and Poland failed to materialise yes, there were outbreaks of trouble but nothing to write home about.
But still, disturbing enough to yield a prime-time, hour-long, undercover Panorama special a month after the event. This, we were informed at the start, would be the “untold story” of World Cup 2006, a documentary devoted to unmasking — cliché alert — “the ugly face of the beautiful game”.
Certainly there were plenty of ugly faces on show, making a good deal of ugly noise. In Frankfurt, for the England-Paraguay game, the undercover cameraman got up close and personal with the usual Weightwatchers candidates with the shaven heads. “I’d rather be a Paki than a Kraut,” they crooned, while one drooling specimen confided: “The only thing I want to do is slice a Muslim’s head off.”
Occasionally the vitriol tipped over into the absurd: in Nuremberg, some English fans serenaded the locals with a song which consisted of the repeated line: “My granddad killed your granddad, toora-loora.”
And then, of course, there was that perennial favourite, “Ten German Bombers”, a song sung to the tune of “Ten Green Bottles”.
That was also the day when one English fan was determined to show his patriotic credentials. The football shirts of World Cup winners have stars beneath the national crest representing the number of tournaments they have won.
This guy’s England shirt had two stars on show. Leering at passers-by and pointing at his chest, he left no-one in doubt about their significance: “Two fackin’ World Wars mate, two fackin’ World Wars.”
Back on Panorama, the brave undercover cameraman was in the thick of some of the tournament’s worst outbreaks of violence, although most of it seemed to consist of chairs and glasses being thrown outside bars.
By the time England got to Stuttgart for their game against Ecuador, the police had abandoned their softly-softly approach and began cracking heads to keep warring German and England supporters apart.
There is no doubt that, around some games during the World Cup, there were ugly and disturbing scenes, invariably provoked by the lethal cocktail of booze — 17 litres of beer per person in Stuttgart, according to official figures — and the traditional belligerence of racist morons. So credit Panorama for getting in among them.
Their conclusion, though, that organised hooliganism has given way to drink-fuelled anti-social behaviour will hardly hold the front page.
And only briefly did they also touch on the fact that, in Stuttgart in particular — where some 200 English fans were arrested after one brawl in a pub, a large number of innocents were caught up in the police crackdown.
I recall meeting a victim on a train. Born in Oman but raised in London, he had nipped into the pub to use a toilet and came out to find himself under arrest, along with virtually the whole of the clientele. Eventually, he was released from the cells but only after convincing a policeman that he wasn’t an English national.
“It must be the first time since 9/11 that being an Arab has got someone out of jail,” he grinned.
Panorama cannot be accused of misleading the viewing public about what happened at World Cup 2006. But it’s also the case that they set out to find scenes of violence and duly found them.
In an almost throwaway line Panorama conceded that “the vast majority of England fans behaved impeccably.” From experience on the ground, that would be my conclusion too.
In its place, we had confirmation that, no, they haven’t gone away you know. But neither — fingers crossed — are they anything like the menace they used to be.