The atmosphere in Lille was one of barely concealed nervousness, with thousands of twitchy police on the streets monitoring the mixing of the streams of Russian, Slovakian, English and Welsh fans. The local prefect had, with more than a hint of foreboding, predicted a “dark day” as his pretty city battened down the hatches.
But on out on the ring road around the Pierre Mauroy Stadium – a soulless but extremely functional bowl fringed by soulless but functional eateries – we were very much back in Uefa-land.
Outside, families in face paint mingled happily with staff in Uefa T-shirts holding the corporate logo lollipops that are now a feature of every major international sporting event. Only a brief false alarm over a suspect package was a reminder of the tension that has hung over this tournament like a heavy cloud.
Slovakian fans on stilts marched around the perimeter, while in the distance a brass band parped away. Wherever those terrifying Russian black-shirted ultras were hiding it wasn’t here under the roof inside the stadium.
In place of rippling biceps, gum shields, nationalist flags and bum bags were fancy dress and lots of replica shirts. Some wore T-shirts with a huge cut-out of Leonid Slutsky, the Russian coach who before the game insisted that the fans would behave themselves and so avoid the penalty of disqualification that Uefa had hung over their heads.
So it proved, even when Russia went 1-0 down. At a tournament where the 10 minutes before kick off are so choreographed that the same three or four songs are rolled out before the orchestrated countdown to kick-off, it was impossible to shake the thought that so too was the Russian support.
Just as it now seems clear that at least some of the hooligans in Marseille – now immortalised in that brutally disturbing speeded up GoPro first-person footage that cast the faceless protagonist as the star in his own violent video game – were there under semi-official auspices, so it appeared that those inside the stadium in Lille were of a different stripe by design.
Moneyed and Bosco-ed up, they were more reminiscent of those who studded the stands at the London Olympics or wandered with their families around the Potemkin Village of the Olympic Park in Sochi than the ultras who caused terror in Marseille.
Stanislav Kravtsov, travelling with his partner, seemed typical. “I wasn’t in Marseille but I think our fans will be quiet. It was just a few English fans and a few Russian fans. The main part of our fans are very quiet and just want to enjoy the game,” he said, picking at some fries in a theme bar before the match. “I think everything will be OK again.”
Even when Marek Hamsik put Slovakia 2-0 up just before half-time with a spectacular effort, they reacted not by going on the rampage and inviting a Uefa ban but leaving their seats early in disgust to buy their bottle of Coca-Cola with a free plastic souvenir cup.
Long before the end, the Russian fans – who managed a few loud of choruses of “Rus-See-Ya” when the scores were level – were looking glum and being outsung by the largely good-natured, bouncing Slovaks. But then their side pulled a goal back, one of their fans let off a flare (inexplicably allowed into the stadium by stewards) and the noise level rose hugely.
Flares are banned by Uefa and that transgression may lead to a charge but the original statement threatening suspended disqualification specifically referenced crowd trouble: “Such suspension will be lifted if incidents of a similar nature [crowd disturbances] happen inside the stadium at any of the remaining matches of the Russian team during the tournament.”
Twenty minutes away on the metro in the centre, where England and Wales fans had been drinking all day and singing songs including “Fuck off Russia, we’re England and Wales”, the fear was that things would be different.
The previous night, around 100 England and Wales fans had gathered just off the Grand Place with police content to watch from afar. A handful of Russian hooligans had taken that as their cue and engaged in running skirmishes.
As Slovakia celebrated their first victory in a major tournament as an independent country, you could just about make out the sighs of relief from the organisers that Slutsky’s team might yet disqualify themselves from the knockout round.