LONDON — British police are on full alert. They've launched raids at dawn. They've confiscated guns, knives, and baseball bats. Last month, they arrested a score of men.
Are the targets murderous villains? Members of the Irish Republican Army? No, they are English soccer fans, ready to have a wicked good time at the European soccer (football) championships, which start here Saturday and last all month. A record 16 teams will compete.
The country that invented what is now the world's most popular sport will witness "a celebration of the English way of life," says Graham Kelly, chief executive of the Football Association in Britain.
But as the Euro 96 matches are televised to an world audience in the billions, eyes will be as much on the crowds as on the players.
Faced with threats of hooliganism from local fans and supporters from countries as far away as Turkey, the game's officials are enlisting massive police help.
"The main message to hooligans is that if they want to come and cause trouble, we'll find them," said the police officer in charge of a special raid in southeast England June 4. "We won't have Euro 96 ruined by a mindless few," he adds.
Wild and disruptive behavior tarnished the reputation of English football in the 1980s. "That period was marked by trauma," says Ian Ridley, a leading football correspondent. "Soccer was played against a background of national disorder."
Some of the worst incidents occurred abroad as crowds of English fans traveled with teams and engaged in fistfights with supporters of rival teams. At one point, violence became so bad that English sides were banned altogether from playing in European club championships.
Experts say disruptive behavior by fans can be traced to a wide range of causes, including social deprivation, youthful exuberance, and sheer criminality on the part of what Eric Dunning, a sociologist at Leicester University, calls "a small but determined minority of troublemakers."
To this list of causes Clifford Stott, a social psychologist at Bath University, adds the ready availability of alcohol at football grounds and occasional errors by police in attempting to control unruly crowds of supporters.
"In some situations, the way the police act can increase tensions," he says.
One of the worst cases of soccer-crowd violence occurred in 1985 at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels when English supporters from Liverpool attacked Italian fans. That incident, in which 38 Italian fans died, is the kind of tragedy organizers of Euro 96 want to avoid at all costs.
Three months ago, in an unprecedented move, the British government got backing from the European Union for close monitoring of the 200,000 to 300,000 fans expected to head to England for Euro 96.
Hooligan hot line
Passports will be scrutinized at airports, ferry ports, and train stations. A computer system called Epicentre (European Police Information Centre) will provide a flow of information about suspicious crowd movements.
And police are also setting up a "hooligan hot line" that legitimate fans can use to alert the authorities to impending violence.
Scotland Yard will coordinate 10,000 local police officers, who will be deployed, as required, in the eight cities where Euro 96 matches are played.
Detective inspector Peter Chapman, head of a special football intelligence coordinating unit, says a minority of English fans, as well as some supporters from Germany and the Netherlands, pose the worst threat of violence.
"Traveling in a large group of supporters provides an ideal vehicle for engaging in violence," he says. "The real hard core get their kicks by organizing confrontations and watching them take place."
Last month Michael Endler, head of Germany's football intelligence unit, said up to a thousand "hard-core German hooligans" were believed to be intending to travel to England for Euro 96.
FA chief Kelly says he hopes extensive modifications of English football stadiums carried out in the last few years will decrease the likelihood of crowds getting out of control.
Nowadays, by law, the big grounds are stadiums that only have seats, making it harder for fans to clash with each other on what used to be standing-room terraces.
Arrays of closed-circuit television cameras have been installed at all the grounds where Euro 96 will be played. In three of the eight cities hosting the tournament, special courts will sit through the night, ready to deal with soccer thugs.