I was there – England v Russia in Marseille, EURO2016

Luc JonesPerhaps naively, I was quite looking forward to spending a couple of weeks in France for Euro 2016; Brits like to joke that France is a great country; it’s just a shame that there are so many French people living there. I guess that I should tread carefully as I do have French roots (the ‘Luc’ is a something of a giveaway), albeit distant. I also speak French fluently, granted with a heavy Quebecois accent, thanks to mum hailing from Montreal.

Following England is a thankless task, and I should know – this would be my fourth straight tournament, having been to South Africa, Ukraine & most recently Brazil. The trips themselves were great, it was the football that was the disappointing part. Admittedly when you follow Plymouth Argyle as your club team, your expectations are automatically set pretty low but then again, there’s the old expression that watching your club team play is a hobby but following England is a passion.

England and Marseille have history. Back in 1998 when France hosted the World Cup, England’s opening game was against Tunisia (which resulted in a comfortable 2-0 win I should add) but the result was marred by fighting between England fans and local youths, largely of north African origin. While the English Football Association (The FA, as it’s better known) has done much to clean up its act, some things never change – more on that a little later.

Early stories didn’t exactly make encouraging reading; several nights before the England v Russia match there were ugly scenes, as three-way battles ensued between England fans, local, Arab youths and the French Police in Marseille’s old port where the city’s bars and restaurants are situated. The result was predictable; carnage after the French Police waded in, spraying tear gas indiscriminately and baton-charging anyone who hadn’t been able to run away in time.

On who is to blame for the violence, it’s far from being a black and white issue. What many England fans consider to be normal or acceptable behaviour – like hanging flags of St. George in the town square, taking their shirts off, signing loud, patriotic songs, drinking outside and chucking beer in the air, is considered very provocative by other nations’ police and fans. The English see it as loutish, yet largely harmless as back in the UK, the Police generally know how to deal with it whereas for the French Police, it’s aggressive and needs to be clamped down on in the only way they know.

The day of the game, being a Saturday saw a new influx of supporters from both sides, but the England fans seemed to far outnumber the Russians in and around the pubs by the harbour. It was a warm, pleasant, sunny day and the pre-match atmosphere was being enjoyed by all throughout the afternoon over numerous beers. Nobody was prepared for what was to come next; groups of Russian fans dressed in black began attacking England fans sitting in bars, sending everyone fleeing for safety. Obviously the local Police were nowhere to be seen as they had turned up en masse in riot gear, complete with meat wagons, encircling the mosh pit where the largest and rowdiest group of English supporters had congregated, ready for action. Once again, out came the pepper spray and baton charges which they’d all been waiting for. We were having lunch two streets back yet the gas came wafting in our direction, giving a whole new meaning to pepper-steak! We ate up, and made our way in the direction of the stadium, taking in a few bars en route, incident-free.

The Stade Velodrome is an impressive venue and used to holding high-profile sporting events. Rather surprising, given the recent terrorist attacks in Paris was that there was only a single security check to enter the stadium, and even this was cursory. In contrast, at the last World Cup in Brazil, you couldn’t get within half a mile of the ground unless you had a valid ticket. Despite having left ourselves with what we considered to be ample time, we found our seats just as the national anthems were being sung.

The game itself began as many openers do in the group stages, cautiously. With the scores nil nil at half time, England began to take control and eventually grabbed the lead with a stunning free kick from Dier. However, as is often the case, despite copious chances they were unable to kill off the game and Berezutsky gave Russia a share of the spoils in the 92nd minute, which they scarcely deserved. The key incident however came in the stand behind the goal where the majority of the Russian supporters were seated. A minute before the end of play, what sounded like a bomb blast was in fact a signal for several hundred Russian hooligans to let off flares and storm the section containing England supporters and attack anyone in sight. Curiously there seemed to be no Police in sight, and the very few stewards in the ground were caught completely off guard, with fans fleeing over barriers for safety.
As things go, what happens outside of any stadium is considered a matter for the Police, whereas any incidents inside are handled by UEFA, who quickly laid the blame on a small number of Russian thugs. For this had been a savage attack on innocent people that had been meticulously planned and executed with military-style precision, even leading to some reports that it had had official blessing. Whilst I believe that this is highly unlikely, there were countless posts on Russian social media sites boasting that this had been years in the making and that groups like such as ‘The Butchers of Oryol’ had sent their best fighters. It was claimed that England fans were specifically targeted because they are viewed by some in Russia ‘top dog hooligans’.

The irony here is that whilst some Russian hooligans idolise the English firms from the ‘70s and ‘80s, those involved back then are almost certainly in nursing homes by now, if not pushing up the daisies. Vladimir Putin even made a joke at the thought of a small number of Russians successfully attacking a large group of English supporters; how could this be possible? Well, England fans nowadays are a different breed; they go to enjoy themselves, to drink beer, sing and watch football, not to fight. England’s next two matches, versus Wales in Lens and Slovakia in St. Etienne passed off without incident; fans drinking and mingling together as it should be, both before and after the game.

Hardly surprisingly, the Russian media pinned the blame squarely on the English fans. It’s interesting to note that when English fans have behaved badly in the past, either at home or abroad, they are heavily criticized in the British press, with senior figures in the government pressing for bans, fines and swift action to be taken.

The fact that Russian fans have a general habit of stealing opposing fans’ flags (both in Russia AND abroad, & hanging them upside down was also very conveniently overlooked by the authorities. In fact the attacks were seen as a source of pride by many Russians at all levels. Russian MP Igor Lebedev was the first to make a name for himself; even encouraging the Russian hooligans to continue fighting. Whilst this might not have been reflective of all other officials in the country, there are regrettably many like him, who see it as displaying ‘patriotism’ to the motherland.

Just like alcoholism, the first major step is admitting that you have a problem; only then can you begin to do something about it. Britain realised that it had a very serious problem decades ago, and has taken countless steps to address these issues, such as by issuing banning orders and confiscating passports from anyone found guilty of any football-related offenses committed either at home or abroad. British Police work closely with their counterparts abroad, initially to prevent trouble from starting but also to ensure that any perpetrators are swiftly dealt with.

Although it was only a tiny minority amongst the 12,000 or so Russians that followed their team in Marseille that evening who were involved, they have done their country’s image no favours. Many England fans I spoke to were now extremely wary of coming to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, stating that they know that they will be vulnerable to attacks. My hope is that in the coming months before the tournament, Russia will do its best to ensure visitors that they will indeed be safe and their stay will be an enjoyable one. But then again, Russia isn’t exactly renowned for positive PR campaigns. There were similar scares before EURO2012 in Ukraine which fortunately passed off smoothly, so I remain positive, at least for now.

However, one suspects that very few outside of Russia’s borders shed any tears when the Russia team were eliminated after the final nail in the coffin was 3-0 defeat at the hands of Wales having already lost 2-0 against Slovakia.