Clashes of England and Russia fans in Marseille exposes failure of planning | Barney Ronay

While the violence was committed by a small, toxic minority, from the scheduling to the policing the authorities in Marseille failed miserably

When France pitched its glossily framed bid for this championship tournament the campaign slogan plastered across the posters and plinths was “Le Foot comme on l’aime!”. “Football how you like it” is a suitably sunny and inane Big Sport tagline, not to mention – for anyone trying to escape the wild, barking disintegration of Marseille city centre on Saturday night – a source of some rather bitter laughter in the dark. On ne l’aime pas en effet; On ne l’aime pas du tout.

Last week Michel Platini, for whom the next few weeks were intended as a kind of coronation, announced his intention to remain grandly absent from the matches. He might just have a point. Bolt the doors, Michel. Judging by the evidence not just of Marseille but also the jumpy, stretched periphery of the opening game in Paris, it could be a long old four weeks.

Certainly the past three days have provided a genuinely grim start in the south. The weather has turned in the north, with rain falling in Paris, which still seems a little un‑gripped by football mania. “Une Ombre sur Marseille”, a shadow on Marseille, was the morning headline in La Provence. And the clouds of Marseille will now linger as Uefa opens disciplinary proceedings, future schedules are checked, shivers of apprehension gulped back.

Marseille was a frantic, wild place in the wee hours of Sunday morning, with thousands of frightened fans and tourists wandering through a city that appeared to have given up on them. It seems a fair bet the 8½th circle of hell, the one Dante considered vaguely but gave up on as a little too banal and pointless, has a section where you get to trudge through glass and vomit at 1.30am past bolted Métro stations, while weeping children in replica shirts stumble about with their frightened parents looking for nonexistent transport, peering down side streets, plotting escape routes from the sudden spurts and burps of violence that flared again through the night.

The Métro was running, but not the stop near the stadium, and without any guidance on where to join it. Taxi drivers had understandably vanished. No buses ran, or at least none were to be seen. Sirens blared past the gaggles of temporarily dispossessed, heading for the violence in the port area.

Several British citizens are still in hospital. Social media pictures have flashed around of one man being kicked repeatedly in the head as he lay on the floor. Police had to resuscitate an unconscious 51-year-old man who witnesses suggested had been attacked with a small axe. Wandering through in the afternoon, it seemed bizarre a football match, of all things, complete with saccharine corporate staging, scrolled with adverts for financial services and beer and computer games, was about to actually take place.

What to make of this? Some will say you reap what you sow and take a quietly censorious satisfaction in the spectacle of that tiny minority of England fans who enjoy intimidating the locals feeling a prickle at the back of their necks. Here England’s own regulars met an even more furious force in Russia’s massed and vicious hooligan gangs.

This, though, is to miss the point completely. It is quite clear a group of violent Russian men came to Marseille with the idea of attacking English people. A few English people were already acting boorishly and violently. Local gangs enjoyed prodding the hive and taking a penance on their own streets. But all of these factions are a small, toxic minority, from whom local citizens and thousands of peaceable visitors need proper protection, just as they do from pickpockets, muggers and criminals of all types.

This is where the city, the police, Uefa and the stadium management failed miserably. Uefa has announced it will now “probe” the violence inside the stadium. First stop: its wretchedly negligent lack of segregation between the two main groups of fans. Russia fans didn’t clamber across into the England section. They just ran through an empty space. These were two solid, packed-out opposing sections. Before kick-off jaws dropped – well, this jaw anyway – at the sight of nothing but a walkway between them. Violence seemed inevitable.

French riot police march towards England fans in Marseille

Not least because exactly the same thing happened just a few weeks ago at another Uefa match at St Jakob-Park in Basel, where Liverpool and Sevilla fans were separated only by a handful of heroic stewards in orange bibs. Whichever departmental head at Uefa is responsible for these arrangements has failed catastrophically. Stepping up segregation now is too late. The warning was clear.

It might have been worse. The retreat of England fans – many middle-aged people or families with children – from their hooded attackers created a rush against the fence at the far end. Fans ended up toppling over the barrier on to the concrete 10ft below. Others were pushed up against it. Children were passed above the fence to safety, a chilling little echo in English football. Ten minutes too late the police arrived. Half a kilometre away the CRS riot police reinforcements sat moodily in their vans.

In almost every way this was a failure of planning. The timing of the game was, with the benefit of all available intelligence, a disaster. Russia versus England was the big TV draw of the day. Commercial sense demanded it take place at 9pm central European time. Never mind the effects of an entire day stumbling around the port, then trying to vacate the place in the wee hours. Malevolent forces exist. Bad things can happen. The task of the authorities is not to stand back and shrug, but to pre‑empt, mitigate and protect.

The police tactics have been unhelpful, a twin-track of laissez-faire and extreme violent intervention. An initial brawl between French and English at the Queen Victoria pub last Thursday was the signal for a rush of teargas and dogs. Otherwise the riot police seemed to spend most of their time posing by their vans and looking mean, when they would have been better served engaging and intervening.

Russia are likely to find themselves sanctioned by Uefa now for the fireworks, the fighting and some reported racist chanting. More alarming is the immediate prospect of England and Russia fans in proximity in Lens and Lille this week. Russia play Slovakia in Lille on Wednesday. England play Wales in Lens a day later. The two are half an hour apart, with a large overlap in hotels and shared spaces. The potential for further trouble is so clear and present Uefa has advised ticketless England fans to watch on big screens in the fan parks (the same fan parks about which security forces have already expressed their own fears). Those with tickets travel forewarned. This may well not be over.

Beyond this the question must be asked whether Russia is a suitable place for a World Cup. Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini gave us this, as they did Qatar. This is their legacy. For travelling supporters, indeed for Fifa itself, it could be disaster. Not just because of the obvious malevolence of Russia’s ultras, but more the sense of closed ranks, the dismissive, even rather approving reaction of Russian media and even the team manager, the useful placeman Leonid Slutsky. Vitaly Mutko, the sports minister and a rare character in his own right, has even denied Russian fans charged across the stadium at the final whistle, a risible but not entirely unfamiliar response.

There are some in France who will look forward to the next three and a half weeks with an early sense of ennui, being bored with the party. Marseille must rouse itself again to entertain France and Albania, and then Poland versus Ukraine, which has its own potential for pre- and post‑match dancing in the street. In the meantime, as the finals swing into their first full week, perhaps it might be best simply to take a breath and hope for a sudden and bracingly distracting outbreak of high‑class tournament football.


Barney Ronay in Marseille

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