Mayhem in the Midi: if only it was that simple

Images of drunken violence fail to reflect the experience of the vast majority of England fans in France
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Indy Lifestyle Online
AT the theme-park Brazilian village outside the Stade de France in Paris the rain is coming down in sheets. A Scots fan dances with a young Brazilian woman. Despite his team's 2-1 defeat, he has a carefree grin on his face; he wears a kilt and a yellow Brazilian shirt bearing the number 9 and the name Ronaldo. The Scot draws his partner tightly to his gyrating hips as they dance deliriously to the fast and loud music of a samba band playing nearby.

At the Vieux Port in central Marseilles, a good-looking Englishman, tall and unpleasant in decent, casual clothes rallies those around him for another assault on the riot police. "Come on, you wankers. Come on, England." Standing amid the clouds of shifting tear gas he looks - though the comparison is grotesque - like the young Laurence Olivier delivering the St Crispin's Day speech in his 1944 film version of Shakespeare's Henry V.

In the Place du Capitole in Toulouse, a group of Danish fans is drinking long, cool beers at a cafe in the square. They stand and clap a group of rival South African supporters who walk by on the way to the stadium for the afternoon game between their two teams. The South African fans wear electric green wigs, the Danish cover their heads with Viking helmets sporting plastic horns.

Which of these three images sums up the real experience of the tournament? Which gets to the heart of what has been happening here?

Last week's newspaper and television coverage of the event suggested that there was only one real story at this year's World Cup. That some Scottish fans drink all day and fall over in the gutter is not really the story because they do so with a rueful smile on their faces and are of little hindrance to anybody else. It was entertaining for the first few days when nothing much was happening, but it was only an entree, never the real thing.

The real news agenda was about the fighting. At least, that is the impression we get. To an extent it is the correct one too. The photographs and footage of the frightening and depressing fighting that raged along the Quai de Rive Neuve in Marseilles were all too real. But those pictures do not tell the whole story. When the World Cup's opening ceremony was marred by violence on the Champs-Elysees involving French North Africans, television reporters spoke gravely from the scene. But the trouble was largely written off. It was undoubtedly dispiriting, but it was not so bad.

Later it transpired that no football fans were involved and so the news agenda moved on, failing to examine what might have been the cause of the violence. There was precious little analysis to explain what might have encouraged those hundred or so French North Africans to travel from the quartiers difficiles beyond the Boulevard Peripherique to cause mayhem.

Few pointed out that this largely disenfranchised population, among which unemployment stands at more than 40 per cent, may have been provoked by the sight of thousands of fans paying up to pounds 40 for an "official merchandise" football shirt or a bottle of World Cup eau de Cologne. No one suggested people who could never afford a ticket for the matches were moved to violence by the sight of Scottish fans spending pounds 60 and more for a day's drinking, or that they might have been making the most of an opportunity to have a go at the French police, who are much criticised for the way they treat the immigrant population.

Last Saturday night, when trouble in central Marseilles began, the cameras were on hand again to witness the bottle-throwing and the police snatch-squad arresting whoever they thought were the troublemakers. But there were not many policemen present hours earlier when a drunk English fan dancing on the roof of a car fell under another vehicle and broke his leg.

The fan waited 20 minutes for an ambulance while his drunk friends, increasingly agitated, abused a policeman standing by. Few people saw one of his drunk friends abuse and push the medic when he finally arrived. "Where the f--ing hell have you been?" Few were on hand as that drunk friend went and told others how the French authorities didn't give a damn about the English. Insupportable behaviour perhaps, but it helped form the mood that created the violence.

The following evening reporters and photographers were present when the worst violence flared. They caught in the frame James Shayler, 34, a father- of-three from Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, who reportedly threw a beer bottle at a group of Tunisians and kicked off what is some of the worst British football hooliganism for years.

But there were fewer people there that morning as crowds of England fans sat drinking heavily in the bars of the Quai des Belges from 10am onwards. Not everyone saw the crowd of several hundred Marseillais North Africans marching up and down the square towards the English, singing and chanting provocatively. "The Tunisians had been winding us up since 10am, so it's no wonder we got irritated," said one England fan the following day.

MUCH has been made of attempts by the police to ensure that many of the hard-core "category C" hooligans were tracked as they made their way to France, and were picked on as soon as trouble started. But what happened in Marseilles showed that this strategy may have not been as important as was originally thought. Only a couple of hundred English people were involved in the violence and the vast majority were unknown to the police.

At best they were "category B" supporters - those with a potential for trouble, especially if drunk. "They are just ordinary drunken yobs," said one police intelligence officer. "They are the sort of people who, if they were not smashing up Marseilles, would be in Torremolinos causing trouble down there." A female England supporter who had fled from the centre of Marseilles when trouble broke out, said: "I really don't understand it. Marseilles is a beautiful city. The people are lovely. You can sit outside a restaurant, and you can drink all night. But all those people want to do is have a fight and smash the place up. Why?"

Ten minutes earlier, just a few hundred yards from where she was speaking, a group of several hundred was watching and cheering as the Irish tricolour was ripped down from O'Malleys pub. The crowd sang "No surrender to the IRA" as one man took a snap-shot of his friends with a disposable camera. The following day a group had reportedly been in a different pub singing: "We are English, we are white and we are proud."

The reaction to all of this has been rather predictable. "There is no excuse for these people. They are scum," has been a common refrain here in France since last week's violence. People who say this have a point - there may be no excuse - but to try to explain is not to excuse. Surely it is not enough simply to say they are scum who deserve locking up. Every night, journalists meeting for a drink after having filed their copy, have been asking the same question. Just what inspires these people who spend their money to come to France but prefer to fight than to watch football; who have no interest in being abroad except to drink cheaply; and who have no respect for the local culture?

Are they the products of failed education, of a generation which grew up believing Argie-bashing was to be applauded, that the French were stupid frogs ("Up yours Delors") and that anyone from North Africa was a "filthy rag-head"?

Then again, were they brought up in a post-colonial atmosphere which mourned the loss of empire and still believed "we" were better, that "we were inherently superior"? Were they told not to bother trying to learn a foreign language because "everybody has to speak English these days"?

Again, predictably, people have had more questions than they have had answers. There has been more going on in Marseilles than can be conveyed in television footage and in newspaper headlines.

It means that this World Cup is not just about hordes of England fans rampaging around France. Not for one one moment during the rioting in Marseilles did I feel ashamed to be English. I simply felt that those people had nothing to do with me, or most of the other English people in the city. The overwhelming majority of English people here are decent, pleasant, enthusiastic and friendly. They have come to drink a bit too much, stay up a bit too late, enjoy the sunshine and watch their favourite sport in some fabulous surroundings.

But which is the image you will remember?