Old enemy rears its ugly head as England fans clash with police

Scenes prior to opening Euro 2016 match against Russia echo violent images many thought had been confined to history

It remains the bastard strand of English football’s DNA. The run up to this campaign has been dominated by nostalgia over Euro 96, the moment at which football came home, put on its face paint and transformed into today’s glossy lifestyle choice.

But in the images of charging riot police, bloodied faces, flying bottles and packs of fans descending like dogs on downed rivals were echoes of scenes in Charleroi in 2000 and Marseille in 1998, two years after the supposed watershed of 1996.

Since then, serious disorder has largely been avoided through careful policing, banning orders and a shift in the demographics of those travelling. But the conditions for their return has never entirely gone away.

Of the 20,000 or so England fans who converged on the city, who are among half million or so expected to travel from the UK, the vast majority would have more in common with those who have created a largely benign vibe at recent tournaments.

Elsewhere in the city, they ate, drank and sunbathed. But it was at the old port where cameras documented grim scenes that will obscure all else and, it is feared, set the tone for England’s campaign.

In truth, police in both France and the UK have long been concerned that England’s opening match would be a tinderbox. Memories of 1998 when there were running battles between locals, England fans and jumpy riot police only too ready to charge first and ask questions later remain strong.

Man prepares to throw a bottle
Man prepares to throw a bottle during skirmish with French riot police. Photograph: Ariel Schalit/AP

The unique conditions in Marseille were always going to prove challenging, given the toxic brew of a large contingent of England fans (most peaceable, a handful intent on violence and some in between depending on drink and provocation), locals who were liable to challenge them, and a hardcore of organised Russian hooligans.

At a pre-tournament briefing by UK police, a theme emerged. Whereas the aim at recent tournaments, certainly since the 2006 World Cup in Germany, has been to convince local police and residents that England fans have changed and educate them that boisterousness may not necessarily equal lawlessness, this time it would be the fans who had to change their behaviour.

With more than 90,000 police, army and security personnel on duty across a country still edgy and jittery in the wake of terrorist attacks on Paris less than seven months ago, the UK liaison officers admitted that fans would have to behave differently.

In Marseille that didn’t happen. Add in military police far from minded to follow UK advice on quietly containing volatile situations rather than clearing areas with teargas, plus the threat from organised Russian hooligans and locals, and the grim scene was set.

Some casual observers will say this confirms nothing has changed since the bad old days.

In reality, the introduction of the England fans membership scheme has largely changed the atmosphere during regular qualifying campaigns and banning orders have prevented known troublemakers from travelling.

Many committed England fans who follow the side home and away are desperately determined not to go back to the days when they were demonised where ever they went and many work hard to build bridges.

But instead, the images that were being beamed across a country still unsure whether it has permission to start enjoying this tournament given the security blanket in place were of the carnage in Marseille. Perhaps there has been too much of a rush to consider the problem solved, or at least contained. Recent campaigns are not valid comparisons.

Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine was logistically challenging, while the travelling hordes at World Cups in South Africa and Brazil often felt interchangeable with an older, more moneyed crowd who might go on an international rugby union or cricket tour.

In contrast, hundreds of thousands of fans will flood unmoderated into France, many of them without tickets. The Football Association and UK authorities may argue there is only so much they can do. In addition, it emerged before the tournament the number of banning orders in place had declined by more than 1,000 to 1,919 since the last World Cup.

Riot police stand guard
Riot police stand guard during the clashes in the old port of Marseille. Photograph: Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA

It must be acknowledged that the worst of Saturday’s violence came when a highly organised gang of 200 Russian fans caused mayhem when they stormed the English contingent in the old port, leaving several injured and one clinging to his life.

Yet England fans appeared far from blameless. A combination of all-day drinking, a large contingent of boisterous younger fans – some perhaps travelling with England for the first time – and an undeniable minority of hardcore troublemakers led to a toxic brew.

There will be understandable reluctance to apportion blame until the full facts are known. Some will blame heavy handed police tactics, others Russian provocation. Some will question why an already potentially problematic clash was scheduled in Marseille in the first place.

But perhaps it is also time for the wider contingent of England fans to honest about the fact that colonising a central point, draping it with England flags and aggressively bellowing “No surrender to the IRA”, “10 German bombers”, “If it wasn’t for the English you’d be krauts” and “Fuck off Europe, we’re all voting out” with beery belligerence is in itself an act of aggression.

As in 1998, England’s campaign now takes them from the south to Lens in the north – in a match against Wales. A day earlier, Russia face Slovakia in nearby Lille. It seems inevitable that it will be marked by tension and ill feeling, as already jittery organisers desperately hope for the best but fear the worst.

Meanwhile, any claim by England fans to the moral high ground has been left behind with the carpet of broken bottles, blood stained streets and teargas canisters in Marseille.


Owen Gibson Chief sports correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Euro 2016: England and Russia fans clash before and after match
One England supporter seriously injured in Marseille after being kicked repeatedly in the head, while another is reported to be in critical condition

Daniel Boffey in Marseille

12, Jun, 2016 @10:09 AM

Article image
Euro 2016 clashes: Russian media vaunt own fans and put blame on English
Initial reports from Moscow claim attack by English hooligans provoked their ‘heroic’ countrymen into violence

Shaun Walker in Moscow

11, Jun, 2016 @9:45 PM

Article image
Whitehall fears Russian football hooligans had Kremlin links
UK government: we suspect many of those who attacked England supporters are in Russia’s uniformed services, fighting Putin’s ‘hybrid warfare’

Daniel Boffey Policy Editor

18, Jun, 2016 @7:53 PM

Article image
Clashes of England and Russia fans in Marseille exposes failure of planning | Barney Ronay
The violence was committed by a small, toxic minority of English and Russian fans, but the authorities in Marseille failed miserably with everything from the scheduling to the policing

Barney Ronay in Marseille

12, Jun, 2016 @10:09 PM

Article image
What awaits England fans at the World Cup in Russia?
Memories of violence at Euro 2016 are still fresh – but do fans and experts believe the hooligan threat is real?

Andrew Roth in Moscow

08, Apr, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Russian hooligans were savage and organised, say England fans
Some were disguised in English club shirts and equipped with gumshields and truncheons for violence in Marseille

Daniel Boffey in Marseille

12, Jun, 2016 @2:37 PM

Article image
Euro 2016: dozens arrested in Lille after England and Russia supporters clash
French riot police use teargas to disperse fans from city’s main square, with dozens arrested and 16 people taken to hospital over course of the day

Owen Gibson, Peter Walker and Ben Quinn

16, Jun, 2016 @7:33 AM

Article image
Britain's Euro 2016 police chief lambasts 'tooled up' Russian fans
Assistant chief constable Mark Roberts says some supporters wore gum shields during clashes with England fans in Marseille

Daniel Boffey in Marseille

12, Jun, 2016 @7:48 PM

Article image
‘In 1946 Iceland played against Ilford. Now it’s England in the Euros … Afram Island!’
Tomorrow England take on the smallest nation ever to play in the tournament

Brian Oliver

26, Jun, 2016 @10:38 PM

Article image
Euro 2016: Russia rolls back support of violence as deportation process begins
Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, has said statements from colleagues supporting the actions of Russia fans ‘don’t reflect the official point of view in any way’

Shaun Walker in Moscow

14, Jun, 2016 @9:02 AM