When England played Italy in the Euros 2020 soccer final on July 11, the images went around the world.
Not just of the Italian team – who eventually won the game on penalties – and not just of the devastated England team. But of the scenes at Wembley, in London, where the game was being held.
Some fans booed the Italian national anthem; others broke into the stadium. Some whiled away the hours before the match by getting drunk, trashing Leicester Square and, in the case of one apparently intoxicated fellow, putting an ignited flare up their butt.
The global outrage was palpable – these England fans behaved appallingly, thank goodness Italy won.
It’s an extreme version of the same story that plays out wherever the English go en masse on vacation.
While the image of the “ugly American” is known across the world, many countries, particularly in Europe, experience the brunt of the “boozy Brit.”
The stereotypical English person abroad speaks English – slowly, loudly and deliberately – instead of learning the local language, searches out English restaurants as they don’t trust “foreign food,” and obliterates themselves with booze by the afternoon.
By the evening, their boorish behavior is on full display.
But are they really that bad? Or do people just love to hate the English?
Tom Jenkins – who’s keen to specify that he’s Welsh – thinks it’s a bit of both.
“There is a kind of myth of the English tourist which is out there, and means people have a fantasy of the perfect tourist,” says the CEO of the European Tourism Organisation (ETOA), the trade body for inbound tourism to Europe.
“The perfect [fantasy] English tourist is probably a cross between Frederick Hervey, the fourth earl of Bristol, and David Niven in ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ What [destinations] get never matches up to that ideal.”
The full English
There’s no denying, though, that the English do get in trouble abroad.
Every summer, stories of bad behavior – usually linked to drinking, brawling and general licentious antics – abound.
Magaluf, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, is nicknamed “Shagaluf” thanks to the tendency of young Brits to fly in for a week of debauchery.
Things can get so bad there that in 2018 the local authorities had to start a campaign begging them not to get undressed or defecate in public.
Meanwhile Benidorm, on Spain’s Costa Blanca, is the heart of another type of English tourism.
The people who come here tend to be a little older, but they’re looking for a taste of home. Hence the proliferation of bars and restaurants offering fry-ups of bacon, toast, egg, baked beans for a traditional “full English” breakfast – all day long. Oh, and good old English beer.
Not even celebs are immune to the werewolf-like transformation that seems to occur to the English abroad.
Supermodel Kate Moss was escorted off an easyJet plane by police in 2015 when, returning from a vacation in Turkey, she got a little too merry, allegedly swigging from her own bottle of vodka onboard and calling the pilot a “basic bitch.”
Former singer and reality TV star Kerry Katona was photographed rolling around on the tarmac at Gran Canaria airport, with her trousers pulled down, in 2016 – something she later blamed on nerves from the flight interacting with alcohol consumption, plus “wanting to sunbathe” the moment she arrived.
Two years later, she defended the peculiarly English activity of airport drinking, early in the morning, when Ryanair – exasperated by the Brits’ drunken early-morning antics – was calling for a ban on early opening hours for UK airport bars.
Even Harry Maguire, part of the squeaky clean England soccer team, which has been highly praised for its new clean-cut image, with stars who give back to the community rather than flaunt their wealth, fell foul of the English abroad curse in summer 2020.
Maguire was found guilty of aggravated assault, resisting arrest, and bribery attempts after a brawl in Mykonos, allegedly sparked when his sister was stabbed.
Greek police reportedly said he shouted “f**k Greece,” though his lawyer denied it, adding, “They love the country and are keen on the ancient Greek culture.”
Out of control drinking
For London-based psychotherapist Andy Cottom, much of the problem boils down to drink.
“The English have a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol,” he says.
“For some reason, continental Europeans have a better understanding of what it can do. I’ve seen Germans similarly drunk, but very rarely French, Italians, Spanish or Portuguese. They don’t seem to destroy themselves quite so regularly.”
Jenkins, however, thinks the English get a bad rap for drunkenness.
“Everyone is perfectly capable of behaving disgracefully – if you’re talking about public drunkenness, I think go to Scandinavia and you’d be surprised by what they manage to achieve. Have you ever hung out at Oktoberfest? Northeastern Europeans and Russians get drunk under the table.”
Jenkins thinks the main issue is that Brits are more conspicuous.
English is the world’s lingua franca, so thugs hurling drunken abuse in English are more likely to be recognized, he says.
What’s more, he claims, “the UK is the biggest market for most destinations in Europe, and if you’re the largest group, you’re likely to be the most detested tourist.”
Another annoying thing about the English? Brits in general don’t spend as much on their vacations. Not least because, since there are so many of them, they can command the best rates.
“Are we the most desirable tourists? Obviously not, but a lot of that undesirability is a byproduct of success,” he says.
“If you’re the people bringing the highest volumes into a destination, you’re in the position to control rates and terms. So tourists who don’t have that spending power are more desired than the English.
“Destinations don’t say, ‘We want high volumes of people who pay cheap,’ – they say, ‘We want people who pay rack rate’.”
An industry’s silence
Finding people in English-heavy holiday destinations who will talk about how the English behave on holiday is difficult.
The mayor of Mykonos, where Harry Maguire had his brawl, declined to speak to CNN about the English, while the government of the Balearic islands, home to hotspots like Magaluf and San Antonio in Ibiza, agreed to take questions by email – but then declined to answer them.
The mayor of Benidorm did not respond to a request for interview. Neither did the Ciudadanos Benidorm party, which has previously criticized the overbearing English presence in the town.
Perhaps criticizing the English at a time when destinations are desperate to recover from the economic carnage of the pandemic is a no-go.
But hotelier Ajay Goyal, founder of Zening Resorts in Cyprus, tells CNN that the English “are hated a lot, even in countries where there wouldn’t be any economy without them.”
He puts it down to several factors: “Loutish drunken behavior by young tourists; [the idea that] ‘You were barbarians before we civilized you but you are unchanged,” by many older people; and an overbearing superiority complex.”
He says that older English tourists have a nasty habit of “telling people what civility is – obviously when not drunk.”
Even more infuriatingly for destinations, the English “have less money than the Germans, Russians and Chinese, and always use cards instead of cash unlike those above,” says Goyal.
However, he says, they do have redeeming features.
“They tend to be the most friendly, humorous and charming – and in my experience, they are also the least racist of the Europeans.”
And as destinations struggle to recover financially, several places are adopting Goyal’s attitude. “I find that now everyone loves English tourists because they are desperate for money,” he says.
English soccer ‘uniforms’
One thing that the English are renowned for while abroad is their “little Englanderness.”
The same urge that makes them sit down for good old English fry-ups instead of trying the local delicacies also, says Jenkins, makes many of them adopt a kind of uniform while they’re on holiday.
“I remember being in Orlando in late September, when some families will take their kids out of school to access low-season rates,” he says.
“You’d see entire families wearing England football strips to go off to the Orlando attractions, in uniform.
“There’s a real misplacement of pride, and it’s also very self-defensive. It’s not a particularly attractive phenomenon.”
Psychotherapist Andy Cottom says that this English pride stems from something deeply unpleasant.
“There’s this island mentality that we seem to be very proud of – we’re only a little nation yet we had a huge empire,” he says.
“This goes back to our issues about shame. We’re deeply ashamed of not being who we used to be.”
Yes – unconsciously, he thinks, the English are ashamed that they don’t have their empire anymore.
“We haven’t really established an identity since the loss of empire. There’s confusion – are we European, English, British, from the UK – so we tend to follow a very primitive concept of ‘splitting’ [where we ‘split’ off parts of ourselves that are unbearable to us, and imagine that others are displaying them].
“We can’t recognize our flaws as easily as we should. The idea [propagated during the empire] that we were supposed to be a ‘superior race’ is embarrassing, and that brings us shame, which brings bad behavior.
“When an individual can’t accept their flaws, they defend quite viciously against that. And the behavior we see with hooliganism is almost giving themselves permission to be an animal,” says Cottom.
“Putting on an England shirt seems to be a kind of protection, or uniform, that says ‘I’m allowed to be a hooligan, to get drunk, because I can’t really look in the mirror and accept that I’m a drunken violent, frequently racist and xenophobic person..
“Rather than accept I have difficulty accepting others, I lash out and use any receptacle to project the bad parts of myself into.”
When the English are abroad, that “receptacle” can too easily become “foreign people.” Especially, says Cottom, when we feel embarrassed that we don’t speak the local language.
“It’s a defense against their own inadequacies,” he says, of the people frequenting all those English enclaves on the Costa de Sol. “So many Spanish can speak perfect English but very few English can speak Spanish.
“Unfortunately, they hide that embarrassment by being loud and obnoxious and drinking themselves into oblivion.
“But the general hatred of ‘the foreigner’ goes back to how we accept our own internal flaws,” he says, comparing it to people who crash into the back of the car in front of them – and call them an idiot for stopping too quickly.
Unfair criticism (sometimes)
Of course, hatred of “the foreigner” cuts both ways – as do preconceptions. The England soccer fans were reviled around the world for booing the Italian national anthem – but Italian fans had booed the Spanish national anthem in the Italy-Spain semi-final just days before.
In the same way, Cottom talks of attending a soccer match in Barcelona, where “there was a lot of aggression aimed at [English] Chelsea fans – it was incredibly overpoliced, with policemen hitting fans with batons and setting dogs on them. There was a prejudice there, and they were obviously taking it out on England fans.”
And he says we all like to stereotype – in the same way that we all think of Americans as loud, and how New Yorkers refer to the “bridge and tunnel” crowd that comes into the city at weekends.
Jenkins, meanwhile, says that the English aren’t the only ones who cleave to home comforts when abroad. And, in fact, he argues that “this is what drives the tourism industry forward.”
“The English were the founding fathers of the industry – a network of clean, well-run hotels throughout Europe was established thanks to them,” he says.
“Then, after World War II, the Americans insisted they should be equipped with bathrooms.
“From the Japanese we started to understand that the interest of the customer has to sit center stage – in America, the customer is king, but in Japan, they are god.
“So the influence of people coming in and demanding home comforts is quite profound on the industry.”
Starting at the root
Although he is quick to deplore the football hooliganism and the racism which has been on ugly display since England’s defeat, Jenkins thinks that general English abroad behavior is different. And he insists that the people who are most offended by the boorish English abroad are their fellow English.
“Coming across your compatriots abroad is like hearing a recording of your own voice – a deeply disturbing phenomenon. So the people who are most offended by English tourists tend to be English tourists, and I think it’s wrong to exaggerate,” he says.
“Not everyone looks like an overweight person without a shirt on, with a red cross smeared over their unshaven pasty face drinking [English] beer. We shouldn’t get too lost in that generalization.”
For Cottom, going right back to England’s roots could change tourists’ behavior.
“The history I was taught and that Mr Johnson [the UK prime minister] talks about was all about British victories. He likes to pretend he’s Churchill and Nelson, he’ll be doing a Wellington impression next.
“How many British people know about the French victories in the Hundred Years War? We only know about Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt.
“We don’t know much German history either – we know about two World Wars, and constantly go on about them every time we play them [in soccer].”
Learning other languages in schools would also “help enormously”, says Cottom, referring to the “arrogance that, ‘Of course everyone speaks English’.”
And going back to what travel is really about could also help the English clean up their game.
“The whole purpose of traveling is to broaden the mind,” says Cottom.
“The purpose of going abroad and not talking to a foreigner rather defeats the object. I believe you travel to meet foreigners, understand them and get rid of your prejudice.”
On that count, it’s not only the English who could take his advice.
An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Benidorm in Spain. It is on the Costa Blanca.