Fears of England fans inadvertently provoking police during the World Cup have caused UK officials to send extra officers to Qatar to “deconflict” situations.
Concerns over cultural misunderstandings and preconceptions regarding the behaviour of travelling England fans means that, for the first time at an international tournament, British police will be sending “supporter engagement officers” (SEOs) to warn people if their behaviour is likely to be interpreted as problematic, even if they are not breaking any laws.
“It’s a World Cup in a very different part of the world with a very different culture,” said chief constable Mark Roberts, England’s national lead for football policing. “One of my fears is that supporters not wishing to cause problems may act in a way that inadvertently causes offence or draws attention. Equally there may be perceptions on the part of either Qatari police or the supporting Turkish police where there’s this misapprehension of what supporters are doing.”
Qatari organisers have drafted in thousands of officers from Turkish national police to control events outside World Cup stadiums, with police officers from Pakistan seconded to provide security and stewarding within grounds. Fans are expected to congregate in only a small number of locations within Doha, Qatar’s capital, largely around one fan zone in the city’s Corniche district, capable of holding up to 40,000 spectators.
Roberts said SEOs would act a “buffer” between supporters and law enforcement. “They will be engaging with supporters if we think there’s a risk that they may be overstepping a mark as viewed by the locals,” he said.
“Our first port of call will be for our officers to go over to them try to explain and try to deconflict. Equally if we think there’s going to be an intervention by law enforcement, [SEOs] will be seeking to engage with that law enforcement, just calm it down and move people on, try to inject a sense of balance.”
Roberts said the suggestion of sending SEOs was made by UK police after planning events in the Gulf state and that the idea was welcomed by Qatari officials. However he said there remained uncertainty over how the operation will work.
“We’re all there as guests of the Qataris so it’s their operation,” he said. “It’s all very encouraging, but I’ve not got the benefit of English domestic teams playing Champions League games in Qatar for the last 20 years. So while I can say with confidence I know how the Germans do it I can’t say that [in Qatar], because we’ve not had the wealth of experience.”
The English Football Association’s head of security, Tony Conniford, said he expected a minimum of 3,000 English fans would attend the group matches, starting against Iran on 21 November. He asked police not to act on reputation when assessing the behaviour of England supporters.
“I feel like communication is the key to success of this tournament,” Conniford said. “If fans are well-informed before they travel then I think they will respect and adhere to the culture we are going into. In every country I’ve been into in recent years I’ve asked that England fans are policed on the behaviour that’s in front of them and not the reputation that precedes them. I sincerely hope that this will be the case on this occasion.
“It is a completely new environment for us to travel to, one that has not staged a major football tournament before, and I think it will make for an exciting supporter experience. I’d like to think that the [Qatari authorities] are ready, but I think we’ll only find out once we get there.”