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The biggest civil liberties outrage you've never heard of

'Bubble matches' sound quaint. In fact, they trample all over freedom of movement

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

Imagine you bought a ticket for the opera and then a copper told you how you may travel to the opera house. You absolutely may not drive there, he says, nor take public transport, nor walk. You must go on a licensed coach, crammed in with all the other opera-lovers, under the watchful eye of the boys in blue. Yes, that’s right, the police will escort you to the opera, monitor you through the performance, and then escort you home. You got a problem with that?

I imagine you would. You might feel that your right to get from A to B however you please had been curtailed.

Now you know how football fans feel. Across Britain, footie supporters are being told that if they want to attend a game, they must submit to being bundled on to police-monitored coaches and ferried there like criminals. It’s the crime against civil liberties no one wants to talk about.

They’re called ‘bubble matches’, which makes them sound quaint. Believe me, they ain’t. A bubble match occurs when the police, using opaque criteria, decide that a game is Category C — meaning there’s a high risk of violence. Any away fans who fancy attending a ‘bubble match’ are forbidden from making their own way. They must meet at a police-designated pick-up point; get on a specially licensed coach, with coppers on board to ensure they aren’t drinking too much or in some other way getting geared up; and then after the game be dropped back to a police-designated spot near their hometowns.


For some bubble matches, away fans are not allowed actual tickets in advance – they’re given vouchers, which they must exchange for tickets at a rendezvous point, usually a motorway service station in the armpit of nowhere. Why? To make doubly sure that only those who have agreed to be marched to the match by police gain entrance.

Not surprisingly, fans hate bubble matches. Supporters of Wrexham FC are fighting to reverse the police decision that their club’s clash with Chester should be Category C. Wrexham fan Andy Pierce has started an online petition asking fans and others to ‘stand up to these draconian measures’ which place ‘huge restrictions on an individual’s freedom of movement’. At the time of writing only 502 people had signed.

There have been more than 50 bubble matches in Britain over the past ten years, enforced under the Violent Crime Reduction Act of 2006. In March last year, the police ruled that a Leeds-Millwall game was Category C. Any Millwall fans who wanted to attend the game in Leeds had to get on a police-controlled bus in Bermondsey at 5.30 a.m. Even ones from somewhere like Manchester. Yep, instead of just popping over to the stadium, Millwall fans who have the misfortune to live in the north of England would have had to make it to Bermondsey for 5.30 a.m. and allow the police to escort them back. It’s madness. The end result? Only 200 Millwall fans went to the game. The rest boycotted it.

I know what some of you are thinking: ‘Football fans — unlike opera buffs — are known for thuggish behaviour, so bubbling them every now and then is probably OK.’ Well, no, not really. Large-scale football hooliganism is a thing of the past. In the 2012/2013 season, there were 2,456 arrests at all games in England and Wales — and the total attendance was 39 million. Less than 0.01 per cent of fans — about one in every 14,000 — had their collars felt, and many of them will have been arrested for stuff other than violence. More importantly, the fans being bubbled have not committed any crime. Their freedoms are being curtailed on the basis that they might commit a crime. Philip K. Dick’s dystopian vision of ‘precrime’ — the punishment of people for crimes not yet committed — is a reality in the football stadiums of Britain.

The Football Supporters’ Federation has kicked up a storm over bubbling. So have ordinary fans, through launching petitions, boycotting games, and sneaking on to the police coaches placards saying ‘Supporters Not Criminals’. But their complaints have found little echo in allegedly liberal circles.

Footie fans are the lab rats of a new authoritarianism. They are monitored, censored and over-policed in a way that would cause outrage if they were any other group. If we let the authorities treat fans as pre-criminals, what’s to stop them doing it to other people? When they came for the football fans, you said nothing, because you were not a football fan.

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Show comments
  • The Red Bladder

    Sorry but I really can’t remember any occasion when opera fans have rampaged through a town damaging everything in sight, have drunkenly brawled with anyone wearing a scarf that is different or screamed and chanted obscenities as they prowled around looking for trouble. Of course I know some ‘rougher elements’ are attracted to the works of Wagner but I doubt even they are that bad.
    The reason that football supporters are treated like violent criminals is time and again so many of them have demonstrated that is exactly what they are.

    • Mike Power

      Well said. Saved me the trouble of responding to yet more O’Neill drivel.

    • Dan Grover

      Sorry, what decade are we living in?! The statistics are right there, in the article. Football has changed since the 80’s – a *lot*. You look across the crowds in a football stadium today (And I’m sure you attend frequently, because I’m sure you wouldn’t profess an opinion based on ignorance) and you’ll see more families than groups of thugs; Little boys and girls there with their parents, grandparents, Sunday League football trips, local schools given free tickets, neutral fans looking for the excitement of a clash etc. They aren’t throwing bananas and flares anymore. It’s time to update both your view on football *and* these laws.

      • The Red Bladder

        In the 2012/3 soccer season, the last for which full figures are available, there were 554 arrests in football grounds for acts of violence, 2,456 arrests on match days around football grounds and 589 banning orders made against football sup[porters. What do you reckon the comparable figures for opera were? It was and it remains a ludicrous comparison to make.

        • Dan Grover

          I don’t know what the comparable figures for the Opera are – do you? And do 39 million people go to the Opera every year? Listing numbers without context – ie, the total attendance – is an irrelevancy. The facts are that the massively overwhelming majority of people going to football matches have done as little to contribute towards football-related violence than those who never attend a football game, yet they get treated like criminals.

          Let’s say for a moment that the numbers for the Opera were comparable – that 3.9 million people a year attend and 250 are arrested around the Royal Albert Hall. Given the same relative size of criminal threads running through the Operatic community, would you fully support the same restrictions on attendance? (Though restrictions aren’t nearly so troublesome for those going to the Opera anyway).

          • Chess_Player

            Er……, think everyone who goes to football knows that if the stats are down, it’s due to policing – I’m a veteran of numerous Rangers-Celtic matches nuff said.

          • Wessex Man

            No that is definately not nuff said, to quote Rangers-Celtic is ridiculous, the Scottish Parliament had to bring in a law to deal with sectarian violence something only occuring in Scotland.

            The last mass rioting in an English city centre was by Glasgow Rangers ‘fan’s in Manchester after a losing European game.

            I’m a season ticket holder of a West Country side and the last time I saw any violence was walking down the street to a play off match at least ten years ago! I’m also a respectable member of society as are the great majority of people around the ground.

            The Liberal Democrats are now ludicrously going to put the return of terraces in League grounds in their Election Manifesto. It’s not needed, it’s dangerous and it’s a silly stunt to get votes and get ‘down with the fans’ from a group of politicians who are always happier at the Opera subsidised by you, me and every other tax payer!

          • Fergus Pickering

            It is the tax oiks pay for culture and civilisation. Quite right too.

          • Chris

            You should look up some of the facts about the Safe Standing Campaign before you start spreading fear about it. People still have allocated tickets – it is just an area where those fans who want to stand and sing can do so without blocking the view of people behind them (families, the elderly or the increasing numbers of people who attend games only to post selfies onto their Twitter feed).

            Is it not needed? Well, that depends on whether you think a day out at the football should be about sport, atmosphere and fun or whether you think it should be like a day out at the Opera.

            http://www.fsf.org.uk/campaigns/safe-standing/

          • colchar

            Sports fans in other areas, like North America, manage to go to games by the millions without there being ANY arrests. There is clearly a problem regardless of how much you try to downplay it.

          • therealguyfaux

            This will come as news to those unruly NFL fans who were routinely arrested and had a bit of drumhead justice (i.e., being thrown in a “cooler”) administered to them at the old Veterans Memorial Stadium in Philadelphia during Eagles (aka “Iggles”) games in days of yore. Granted, mere dozens, perhaps a hundred at most, in a crowd of 60,000, but a problem deemed worthy of attention by the local authorities and the league. The problem has abated in the most recent seasons but has not vanished altogether in the new stadium there.

          • Dan Grover

            The make up of sports in the US is simply too different to make for a useful comparison. If you compare the UK to the rest of Europe when it comes to sports-related violence and offences, we’re miles ahead. Flare throwing and atrocious racism is still rife in football stadiums on the continent.

      • monty61

        I had the misfortune to be a Scot (albeit a southern-based one) arriving in Manchester for a business meeting the day after Rangers fans trashed the city centre. Trying to get a taxi was interesting, business suit or no.

        As far as I’m concerned these thugs could be hung drawn and quartered before the game and I’d applaud. The same applies to the idiots that follow Millwall, or many other scum-magnet clubs.

        • Dan Grover

          I don’t think you’ll find anyone defending the *actual* thugs, but the point here is that the overwhelming majority aren’t thugs and have done nothing wrong, but are treated like they have.

      • colchar

        The fact that there are any groups of thugs, however few, demonstrates that there is still a problem? Here in North America we have fans of both teams (of whichever sport) sitting amongst each other and we never have problems. But then, maybe we are simply more civilized.

        • therealguyfaux

          And then there was that incident at Dodger Stadium where a San Francisco Giants fan was beaten into a coma for wearing his team’s gear. (Not in the seating, but outside on the way to the parking, to be fair.)

    • Peter L

      The real criminality concerning Opera is that our taxes subsidise your leisure pursuits.
      Meanwhile, those of us who find art and beauty in a well-struck free kick, a curling corner or a crunching tackle are treated, as O’Neill rightly says, to a collective punishment.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Because you have no bloody taste.

      • Aberrant_Apostrophe

        You forgot ‘artistic dive in the opposition penalty area by a prima donna forward’ and ‘faux rolling in agony after blatant non-contact with a defender’s boot’.

        • Kitty MLB

          All this happens….even biting(by some) Good
          God! It doesn’t happen with Tennis.

          • Aberrant_Apostrophe

            True, we just get treated to fake orgasmic screams and grunts instead.

          • Kitty MLB

            When sitting en fragrante within a bluebell wood..their significant other probably says:
            Oh your not thinking about work again..are you.

      • IainRMuir

        And how much has been spent policing football matches outside the grounds over the years?

        Then there’s the cost of investigating and prosecuting footballers for crimes such as assault, rape etc on a regular basis.

        I’d avoid the subject of subsidies, if I were you.

        • Peter L

          I completely agree that the cost of policing a football match should lie with those who have the benefit – the fans. Just as the cost of opera should fall with those who enjoy hearing a well-upholstered diva yodelling in Italian.

          Not sure how the Olympics come into this. Tony Blair’s £9.2b Bread and Circus fortnight left London with a lot of unuseable buildings. If West Ham made the best bid for one of them, that’s business.

          • IainRMuir

            “a well-upholstered diva yodelling in Italian.”

            Ahhh – a “fat, foreign language” joke. Only in England.

            Could also be in English, French or German, with surtitles for those unfamiliar with the language.

            West Ham did well out of public money, whichever way you look at it.

          • Wessex Man

            amazing you can pass the comments you do and then get upset when Peter L dares to pass a witty comment.

        • Wessex Man

          I’d be interested to see your links for all crimes listed in your comment, I’m sure that Sir Elton John, Julio Igelesia and Stephen Fry would as well, all being ardant followers of the beauriful game and if he were able Sir Richard Attenborough.

        • Peter L
  • Policing of football matches is so OTT these days that the most likely explanation is that it’s an overtime racket. It’s been that way for years as actual trouble at grounds has declined. It’s the most obvious symbol, week-in, week-out, of the way in which the Police are out of control (witness their ludicrous advice yesterday on the legality of the ISIS video).

    The abuse is far worse than “bubble matches” – though they are the most egregious instances – this kind of ludicrous situation is played out every weekend in all kinds of fixtures.

  • Daniel, Oxford

    No one, especially not the liberal elite, is complaining because the vast majority of football fans are white, working or middle-class, men. By virtue of those attributes alone, they are regarded as irrelevant and deserve everything they get, by those that rule us.

    • Mr Grumpy

      Spot on. Imagine the reaction if they tried this approach to policing postcode gangs or Jihadis.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        So what football teams do UK Muslims support?

        • Terry Field

          Bradford IS

          • Wessex Man

            Hur hur I don’t think.

          • Terry Field

            I fear I am spot on. Who, if they are at all intelligent, believes the fantastical assertion that British Moslems (an oxymoron) are all happy clappy reasonable folk, surprised by the ‘inexplicable’ appearance of ‘radicals’ (whatever that means’ i their ‘community’!!!!
            And it is good to know the Moslem Council of Great Britain has given the faithful ‘permission’ to speak to the police.
            We are insane to tolerate any of this.
            I am sure you agree!

          • Wessex Man

            No I don’t agree at all, you are trying to make a point through football with your comparable hatred of Moslems as the most fanatical Moslems make against Britains no matter what their faith.

            You will only be happy when this country is burning from tip to toe to prove your point.

          • Terry Field

            Oh dear.
            Firstly I am making a comment about Islam and its compatibility with the West, and make no comment at all an
            about football, a game of such surpassing tedium and excessive commercialisation as to be utterly corrupting and worthless.
            As for hating moslems, nonsense. I have no hatred for Islam and none for moslems. I talk about comptibility. You are modern and cannot understand ideas since you have a very limited capacity for language. No language, no tools for thinking. One follows the other.
            Your last sentence is utterly cretinous.
            Plainly you also lack intellect, and certainly have no critical faculty at all.

            D minus. DO not bother to try harder; no point.

          • Wessex Man

            You pompous far*, because I disagree with you, you horrible little person you think that gives you the right to belittle me into silence. Those tactics which other people who also have an inflated sense of their worth like you have tried to use here have always failed.

            My last sentence may be cretinous to a reactionary tos*** like you because you can’t see pass your own evil prejudice.

            Whilst you accuse me of being modern and therefore unable to understand ideas, which in your case are purely based on your own sense of superiority over all others you sad person!

          • Terry Field

            Ha ha
            You are a twelve year old!
            You cannt respond with uintelligence because you have non!
            No comprehension!
            No subtlety!
            No capacity to construct a meaning fulo sentence!
            Since you cannot read and inwardly digest an argument, your response is a kind of irrelevant enfartment of randomly associated words, that provide all the colour and odour of the s-bend!
            I am not sad!
            You are not gay!
            GO AWAY!!!!!

          • Wessex Man

            Of course you are sad, you whole reason for being is sad, here only to insult others who may have a an opinion that differs to you own.

            My original comment to you concerned your attempt to paint Bradford as some sort of IS stronghold, I expect that you have never been within a hundred miles of the place but like to paint your predjudices large, just as you do about the vast majority of the British People.

            I imagine you penned the sad little comment above from a damp country seat which the rest of us would say was old ugly house.

            The world has moved on from people like you only you haven’t noticed.

          • Terry Field

            Windbaggery full of NOTHING!

          • David12

            I have walked through Bradford and found it only marginally better than Dewsbury.

          • Kitty MLB

            No more battling WM.Just sit in a cave somewhere and eat a hairy mammoth or two..
            might even provide liquid refreshments.

          • Wessex Man

            Kitty my darling, I am most surprised that think me that ancient, I thought we had something special there.

          • GenJackRipper

            Stop being a beta-male and resort to name-calling.

          • colchar

            Or maybe he will be perfectly happy when Muslims assimilate to the culture of a country they chose to emigrate to?

        • Darnell Jackson

          Look what you started!

          • hitchslap11

            By the sounds of it, two old farts comparing vocabularies and whom is the more enlightened.

          • Kitty MLB

            Oh come on its like Socrates and Plato having
            a little chat about intellectual prowess and they’re puffing the chests out in that usual male
            way.
            Anyone who endeavours to join that battle of wits had better be armed or face the consequences.

          • Wessex Man

            Kitty, I’m getting the distinct impression that I have somehow upset you, no I must be wrong!

        • rockylives

          ISIS might have a fondness for Oxford United, one might suppose.

  • montague_stjohn

    Tedious professional troll Brendan O’Neill.

    • whs1954

      How so? If you were told that if you wanted to be somewhere for 3pm on a Saturday you had to be herded by the police onto a designated bus at 5.30am, as a law abiding citizen with no criminal record would you like it?

  • Andrew Smith

    Roy Jenkins described his job as Home Secretary as striking a balance between maintaining civil liberties and keeping the Queen’s peace. This is what “bubble matches” seem to be about. We accept greater infringements on our freedoms when the price for not doing so is greater.

    Football-related crimes are down – they could go up if the Police change their policy. This article is wrong.

    • John Lea

      I’m just surprised they can find enough police officers these days to supervise a football match. I thought they were permanently based outside Cliff Richard’s house.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Football fans because act like criminals, they deserve to be treated like criminals. Remember the football special trains, taking the fans of the away team into the heart of the home team’s city. Now that was a really smart move.

    • Wessex Man

      Good grief, how long have you been in Japan? Yes I remember ‘the football speacial trains’.. I also remember the BBC Panorama recruiting a load of Millwall loons paying for them to travel to Bristol and to attack the Tote End at Eastville, many many years ago. How dare you try to brand people like me criminals, you want real criminals go to any town centre at midnight any day of the week and see them vomiting in the streets, then on to A& E and then on to a Police holding cell until they sober up and are allowed to repeat it the next night! all the while being treated like lost children.

      Football fans however are screamed at like me yesterday to stop my fu***** car until I fu***** tell you to move on a street two streets away from the Stadium with clear roads stretching ahead. Wonderful community policing!

      It’s allowed because the ruling elite say football fan- lower classes no votes!

      • John Lea

        Surely the clubs are partly to blame as well – doesn’t the home team pay the police to ‘monitor’ their games? If fans boycotted such matches, perhaps the clubs – or the FA – would intervene and speak to the police about their approach.

      • Damaris Tighe

        This isn’t the first time I’ve read about police talking to people this way. However I’m sure they’re uber-polite to the favoured classes – some (but not all) ethnic minorities, gays etc.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Britain’s unresolvable social problems are not your responsibility, suggest you take the necessary steps to ensure they are no longer your problem.
        Jack, Japan Alps

  • In2minds

    Singing at the opera is way better than at football. That raucous masculine bellowing they do at football is awful.

    • Wessex Man

      oh I don’t know having been forced to attend opera in the past.

  • Terry Field

    You clearly have no self-respect, or you would not go to a football match. You would learn to appreciate Rugby or Cricket. and become normal.

  • Bonkim

    For the safety of the public – football supporters are known to be troublemakers if left loose.

    • Wessex Man

      I hope that inane comment is tongue in cheek.

  • Ah yes, the Boycott, otherwise known as declining to avail yourself of the goods and services on offer to you from a commercial enterprise, for reasons which nobody may enquire.
    If you are policed in this way, it must be in collusion with the game itself, which I imagine wants to protect its reputation from the kind of ugliness that would cost it millions in sponsorships and insurance if it didn’t look out for itself. I’m sure that’s why the game’s authority is willing to go along with what they’re told to do, and not kick up so much fuss about it.
    These are purely commercial terms as any business has to consider, and to find so much distress in the matter proves only that football culture still suffers from that appalling tendency to self pity which is what turned me off it by the age of 6.

  • GraveDave

    Imagine trying this shi t with the Nottinghill Carnival.

  • Alan McKellar

    People don’t get tanked up on alcohol and have a fight at the opera.
    Stop fighting at football matches and the policing will reflect fan behaviour.

    Also there are no “bubble matches” in Scotland or Northern Ireland so it’s not “Across Britain….”.

    • John Lea

      You’ve clearly never been to an opera in Glasgow.

      • Aberrant_Apostrophe

        Do they have sub-titles, even though it’s sung in English?

        • Kitty MLB

          Opera being sung in English? With subtitles?
          Who are these people…Opera must only be sang
          in Italian…I am in shock !

          • Aberrant_Apostrophe

            You’ve clearly never been to an ENO production, where they always sing in English. Having said that, I also prefer opera sung in Italian. Perhaps it’s because they pronounce every letter in every word.

        • John Lea

          Very good. As Jamie (the very angry Glaswegian New Labour spin doctor) in The Thick of It, would say: “It’s just f*cking vowels’!

    • Wessex Man

      What? Your Government had to bring in a new Law to cope with sectarian violence at your grounds!

  • Paul Armstong

    oakland raiders and philly eagles puts this to shame. i think oakland averages a couple dead per game and thats the parking lot. football in every form is a kids game ruined by adults

    • Aidian Holder

      Not true at all. But many of us Oakland Raiders fans would probably like you to believe it.

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      Must be all those tailgate BBQs they have which cause food poisoning…

  • It’s appalling. Put me down as Against. Tell the police to stuff it. In the nicest possible way.
    Love, A Non-Football Fan

  • Aidian Holder

    What the hell is wrong with the U.K. that people would put up with this?

  • Roger Hudson

    You can have the power if you want it enough. Use the collective power of not paying for any product in large enough numbers that the seller, in this case the clubs take notice and apply their lobby pressure to effect change.
    If you can’t get enough support for that take up rugby.

  • Terence Hale

    Hi,
    An interesting model is developing in Germany where a football club must police itself.

  • Aberrant_Apostrophe

    I must have missed the last riot or stage invasion by opera goers…

  • Liz

    Aww bless, you think Spectator readers are into high culture and this is how to appeal to them. You should have used the last night of the proms – highlights on ITN news.

    • Kitty MLB

      Some of us listen to the last night of the proms and amuse ourselves here too.
      ‘high culture’ not too sure about that.is it culture in a hot air balloon ?

  • jmjm208

    How many opera fans fight each other and the police? These measures are essential to keep public order. Perhaps if you lived near a football ground you would think differently.

  • Sir Trev Skint MP

    I must admit I’ve never had an opera-goer urinate up my back during La Traviata!

  • Ian Walker

    What percentage of opera-goers are arrested for violent crimes committed at the opera?

    Not that I disagree with the sentiment, but your analogy is awful.

  • John Cronin

    Given the extraordinary decline in football related violence over the last 20 yrs, I’d say it was a price worth paying.

  • Sapporo

    Football fans are generally white, working-class and lower middle-class men. In Cultural Marxist led politics and policing, this means they are second-class citizens. Contrast the policies towards football fans who travel abroad (a tiny minority of whom might throw a chair in a bar) and Islamist fanatics.
    When England play overseas, the Police will have hundreds of officers at airports and ports. They look out for white, casually dressed men travelling to the Country or neighbouring Countries where England are playing. They stop such people and check their ID for previous convictions or to see if they are suspected hooligans (no convictions required) on the Football Intelligence Unit database. If they suspect that any individual may be travelling to cause trouble, they apply for an order – based wholly on their opinion – to ban this person from travelling. At the same time, several thousand convicted and unconvicted fans have to report to a Police station every time England play abroad.
    However, if a suspected Islamist is travelling to Iraq/Syria, the authorities claim they can do nothing……….

  • Tom Chance

    Small point but police not only make sure fans aren’t drinking “too much”, but actually anything at all. Thanks to 1980s hooligan-era legislation, it is illegal for fans to drink alcohol on official football transport. People will be searched before even being allowed on to the police-controlled buses. Anyone found drinking will be thrown off the bus in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve seen it happen.

  • which van do the Islamic radicals immigrants take to the football [soccer] games?

    the armor only works when the “hooligan” is on the outside.

  • Radford_NG

    Retired doctor attacks taxi driver with stick over fear he would miss the opera……driver needed stitches to his head.
    Telegraph;29 Aug.2014.

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