We came for the football. What we got, with the anthems still fresh, was 10 minutes of violent culture clash in the Wembley seats. This was a tableau of viciousness played out via the fists of Hungary’s travelling ultras and what looked, at times, like a lone Metropolitan police officer waving his (massively outgunned) baton of liberal justice.
Ultra-nationalist football thugs versus the Met. And it’s live! It was a dismal, toxic, at times surreal night at Wembley Stadium. At 7.45pm England’s players kicked off this Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifier to the usual hopeful, tinny cheers. By 7.48pm, the first fists were being thrown in the Hungary end. By 7.50pm the police had arrived in the stairwell above the main mass of away supporters and begun an attempt to force them back.
Fast forward another five minutes of full-contact free-for-all and the Met, punched, kicked and swarmed by superior numbers, had retreated back to the concourse. And so it came to pass that with the game itself barely started the away support had created a kind of Hungarian embassy in the Wembley seats. The flag will fly. This patch of soil is ours.
At half-time the police tweeted a statement. Shortly after the start of the game officers had entered the Hungary end to arrest a spectator for “a racially aggravated public order offence”. Before kick-off the England players had taken the knee. It drew an energetic reaction in the Hungary section. A flag was raised with a drawing of a stick man taking the knee, with a line daubed across it. Hungary’s football supporters are enthusiastic repeat offenders when it comes to racist abuse.
“As the officers made the arrest, minor disorder broke out involving other spectators. Order was quickly restored and there have been no further incidents at this stage,” the statement continued. This is only partly true. Order was not restored. Or at least, not the order of the Met, but a little taste of alt-right dictator-culture staking its flag in the London Borough of Brent.
To their credit, the police attempted to enforce the law here. This was an attempt, undermanned and overwhelmed, but also undeniably brave, to impose the principle that racism is a crime in this country. At the same time it seemed odd even before kick-off that there was so little in the way of police presence, so little feel for the occasion and for the reputation of the visitors. What did they think was going to happen here, wading in to that 2,000-strong end in a small luminous-jacketed platoon?
Some will ask why, given Hungary were ordered to play their last home game behind closed doors for abusing England’s black players, it was then deemed acceptable for thousands of Hungarians to gather to watch football in London. Football makes noises about regulation, about saying no to racism.
Its governing bodies voice their shock every time, all the while cosying up to the nearest seedy dictator. It is a risible and insulting pretence.
The violence had started when Hungarian supporters clashed with a group of stewards. Stewards are not security guards. These people are there to manage the crowd and to help with the flow. Twenty to 30 police appeared at the top of the stairwell and were soon thrashing at the crowd with batons. The Hungarian fans surged, swarming around these insurgents in their luminous jackets. After the deserved criticism the Met have taken over recent horrific events, the internal culture of the force, failings of management, this will draw little sympathy from some. Could they not just flag down a bus?
It is worth bearing in mind who was on the other side of that line. Viktor Orban has weaponised football as a statement of personal power, and also as a muster point for an aggressive young male cultural militia. There was something jaw-dropping during the summer’s Euros at seeing assorted English TV pundits gushing, presumably out of ignorance, at the thrill, the warm feelings inspired by seeing men in black shirts punching the air and projecting their own kind of aggressive nationalism. Just great to see the crowds back, eh?
Here, that early incident seemed to overshadow the game. Hungary scored midway through the first half, the signal for a huge green smoke bomb in the away end. When England equalised there was some brief alarm at attempts on all sides to clamber over the security tarpaulin, but thankfully it fizzled out. By the final whistle reports suggested the police had arrested 40 Hungary fans, and were waiting for reinforcements to arrive to remove them from the stadium.
For Wembley this was another bruising night. The Euro 2020 final brought its own kind of domestic meltdown. Perhaps you could try to explain that away as a by-product of lockdown desperation, given fuel by corner‑cutting security and shoddy planning. Cut it back. Squeeze the margins. Hope for the best. The reality of England in 2021 went steaming right though that illusion of order, splintering it like a cardboard western set. This was something else. Welcome to the world, Wembley Stadium. It is, make no mistake, a little dark out there.