The truth is, we’ve gone so long without a tournament that’s been close enough to contract it that we forgot just how awful the English Disease can be when the symptoms manifest. Marseille 1998, Charleroi in 2000, Portugal 2004 and even the supposed bliss of Germany 2006. But in between those years, and since, it’d been quiet. Japan and South Korea was far flung, as were Brazil, Ukraine and South Africa. Austria and Switzerland were untroubled by English football, let alone the worst element of their supporters.
If I wasn’t in New Zealand, I’d probably have been in Marseille this weekend with my friends. It’s to my own puzzlement that I’ve never seen England play live, certainly not in tournament football. Perhaps that’s because I know what reputation England has abroad, or England supporters at least. Like most supporters, while me and my mates wouldn’t have gone looking for trouble, instead preferring looking for a decent lager, it’s likely we would have found some anyway.
France 2016 is the first tournament in a while that doesn’t require a plane ticket to get to. The ferry across to Calais or Le Havre, the tunnel. It’s practically on the doorstep. Which is part of the problem, I suppose.
The Guardian’s recollections of Marseille in 1998 are a good resource for those seeking to explain the violence. England playing Tunisia in a city with strong links to north African nations, supporters hitting the beer early in the sunshine and eventually the police caught between two opposing groups, hell bent on trouble.
This time it’s three groups, meaning the police are even more outnumbered than in 1998. The English, the Russian and the Marseillais all walk into a heavily policed European capital. What follows is no joke.
English football supporters have rubbish songs. They’re still singing ‘Ten German Bombers’, ‘No Surrender To The IRA’ and even ‘If It Wasn’t For Us, You’d Be Kraut’. An interesting new addition this time around is ‘Fuck Off Europe, We’re All Voting Out’. The EU Referendum has heightened tensions within the UK and polarised opinions, particularly charging up the right wing isolationists. The St George’s flag, the chance to take over a French city, all appeals to that element. When a large contingent of men drop on the centre of a European city and start singing utterly dire xenophobic ‘patriotic’ songs, with all that comes with it, there’s going to be trouble.
The Russian supporters, based on their domestic and international record, are a whole heap of trouble. Their league fixtures are often cited for racist chanting, their history of football violence in domestic and international games is brutal. Apparently their hardcore took their inspiration from the English hooligans of the 70’s, possibly explaining the post-match charge across the barricades to get to the England supporters today. There’s also the looming World Cup in Russia, meaning that Russian officials are doing all they can to deny, minimise and avoid addressing the issue.
Then there’s the residents of Marseille. They’re in their city, watching their rather high class areas like the Vieux Port get swamped with St George’s and Russian flags, drunken sunburn victims and calf tattooed lumps. The Vieux Port isn’t ultras territory, it’s no bloody banlieu. It’s the Marseille equivalent to Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter. That’s not to say that they’re not attempting to let the invading Anglo-Russian supporters know that Marseille is their city, but it’s not as if they’ve travelled 1000km to get smashed on cheap lager and have a fight. I have some, not much, but some sympathy for them.
The police, for their part, are stuck in an impossible situation. They’re still on edge following the Paris attacks. The skirmishes began two days before the match. The game itself was one of five classed as a ‘High Risk’ for hooliganism. Which only begs the question, why the hell was the game played at 8pm on a Saturday night, in Marseilles of all cities? Someone at UEFA has questions to answer about the scheduling. Also how someone managed to get a flare gun into the Stade Velodrome, despite ‘heightened security’.
— Football__Tweet (@Football__Tweet) June 12, 2016
That’s not to excuse the actions of the minority of supporters on all sides who engaged in violence on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There are questions that need to be asked about how they conduct themselves abroad and how they can engage with local law enforcement to avoid confrontations, and clashes between supporter groups.
It’s mere weeks since the Hillsborough tribunal found accusations of drunken hooliganism against those who died in 1989 to be false. Much was made of how much safer the game has become since then, how much more genteel, how the troubles of the past were all behind us now. And now this. The three days of scrapping on the streets of Marseille will not have gone un-noticed by other supporters across France. Euro 2016 has caught a case of the English Disease. It’s up to UEFA, the police and the football associations to ensure it doesn’t spread.
Otherwise somebody’s going to get murdered.
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