British athletes get drunk and boorish

England: The country's soccer stars have turned alcohol-driven ill manners into an art form, but the players are not alone.

March 28, 2004|By Steven Stark | Steven Stark,THE NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE

THIS MONTH, Great Britain got its version of America's Kobe Bryant scandal when three players from one of England's top soccer clubs were jailed for sexual assault in Spain, where they were training.

For a short time, the arrests sparked in Britain the kind of media circus that Americans have come to take for granted, as with Bryant, the star professional basketball player: the mobs gathered on the courthouse steps, the editorials about the undeservedly elevated status of athletes and the television debates about who really was to blame.

Yet athletic scandals, like sports, reflect the countries that produce them. The United Kingdom's latest imbroglio is distinctively English for two reasons: First, the three Leicester City players appear to have been drunk out of their minds at the time of the alleged assaults. Second, few in England seemed particularly surprised or, even worse, especially discomfited by the news.

The notion that athletes like to have a drink or two and let loose is nothing new, of course. But in recent years England's soccer stars have made an art form out of alcohol-driven boorishness. Hardly a month goes by without one English player or another flouting the law or public decency while engaged in what British sportswriter Brian Granville has called "the drinking game."

One of the most egregious cases involved Frank Lampard, a star on the English national team, who spent the night of Sept. 11, 2001, hurling insults at American tourists after getting drunk in an airport bar after his flight was canceled. He ended the evening by throwing himself down a bowling-alley lane. This followed an incident in Cyprus a year earlier in which, after a drinking binge, he had himself filmed with several other national-team players during an orgy.

Or take Jonathan Woodgate, another English soccer star who, four years ago, ended a night of drinking by getting arrested, along with a teammate, for chasing an Asian student through the streets of Leeds, where the student was beaten up.

When Gerard Houllier, the coach of Liverpool, moved from his native France to assume his duties in England, he was shocked by the habits of his players. "In France, if you say that the players can have a drink, they have two," he said. "Here they have double figures."

His players are not alone. Recent government reports have offered ample documentation of England's major drinking problem. Though the average Englishman drinks less alcohol annually than do his Belgian, French or Greek counterparts, he drinks far more frequently for the express purpose of getting soused.

Britons drink two-thirds more alcohol than they did 40 years ago - and Britain was never an island of teetotalers. Around 40 percent of men between ages 16 and 24 drink more than four pints of a beer a day. According to a government report, England has 1.2 million alcohol-related incidents of violence each year, and the police spend more than $12 billion a year dealing with alcohol-related crime.

Prime minister's son

Prime Minister Tony Blair's son made headlines when four years ago, at the tender age of 16, he was picked up for vomiting in London's Leicester Square after a night out boozing.

The rest of Europe knows all about English drinking habits, and not just because of British soccer players. With the advent of cheap air travel, the English have brought their drinking - and the accompanying mayhem - to the rest of Europe. Rampaging English soccer fans are the scourge of the continent, while resorts and restaurants from the Greek island of Rhodes to Prague, Czech Republic, have put up "not welcome" signs after drunken English tourists, in town for a stag party or a weekend of "fun," have staged public sex acts and intimidated shopkeepers and restaurateurs.

To be sure, drinking to excess is part of England's national identity. According to Jeremy Paxman, author of The English: A Portrait of a People (Overlook Press, 2000), the troops of King Harold prepared for the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by drinking to excess. David Lloyd George, who was prime minister from late 1916 to 1922, complained during World War I that, "Drink is doing us more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together."

Yet as columnist Zoe Williams of The Guardian noted not long ago, in recent times binge drinking has become an activity that makes the populace "absurdly proud," which is why the loutish behavior that often accompanies it has become so widespread.

"We do alcohol the way the French smoke," she wrote, "not as harmful fun to get us through life, but as an expression of any vestige of patriotic unity we can still muster."

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