Tough cops and no beds - Marseilles prepares for the English invasion

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The Independent Online
BLEARY-EYED and unshaven, football fans Paul Sanders and David Tilsey were eating breakfast at the Bar de la Mairie, a small street cafe sitting alongside Marseilles' sparkling harbour.

"We didn't dare use the bathroom at the hotel," said Mr Tilsey, sipping a large cup of cafe au lait. "It was horrible - dirty, full of moths, there was no seat on the toilet and no window. We just decided to get out as soon as possible and clean up later."

Admittedly the two men had only paid pounds 8 each for their room, but then again their only other alternative were rooms going at pounds 100. "I think we were actually quite lucky to find anywhere in the city at all," added Mr Sanders.

Slowly but surely England's football fans are beginning to descend on Marseilles, the scruffy, pink-painted city on the Mediterranean. For the past few days they have only been coming in dribs and drabs but police expect the majority to arrive today and tomorrow.

The city's airport at Marignane is tomorrow due to receive 22 charter planes carrying up to 3,500 more supporters. It is known that more than 9,000 supporters are travelling with "official" operators.

However, by the time England's first game against Tunisia kicks off tomorrow afternoon there will be up to 20,000 English fans in the city. Many of those without tickets will have been encouraged to come by the touts who are openly selling tickets at between pounds 200-pounds 300, something condemned by the Football Association which has criticised England's official ticket allocation of just 7,000.

Just where all these fans will stay, however, is not clear. Marseilles may be France's second most populous city, but it has only 5,263 hotel rooms, and many hotels have raised their prices for the World Cup period by 25, 30 and even 50 per cent.

"It's true that we have difficulty finding rooms for everybody who wants one," admitted Max Tissot, assistant manager at the tourist accommodation centre.

"We have set up a hotline and we are trying to find places for people in the other towns around the area. Marseilles' problem is that over a year the hotels are only 60 per cent full - there is not the demand.

"The problem is that when there are big events like the World Cup we could do with another 4,000 or so rooms. But we are doing our best to find people alternatives."

For many fans, one alternative is camping. Fifteen miles outside Marseilles at the Camping des Cigales at Cassis, a group of young English fans were yesterday struggling with their tents as the mistral blew down the lower Rhone valley and whipped at the flapping nylon.

"I have never camped before but it's quite good fun," said Ian Harvey, 23, a credit manager from London.

"We had one night in a hotel in Marseilles but the place is full. This is the nearest campsite to the city, there is nothing in Marseilles itself. Loads of supporters are getting sent out here."

The likely reality for many supporters arriving without pre-booked accommodation is that they could find themselves spending most of the night in Marseilles' bars. The local police have given many bars permission to stay open until 4am throughout the entire World Cup, part of the thinking being that by then it will almost be light and those without rooms will be able to stumble and fall asleep on a bench for a couple of hours.

It may seem like a policy set for disaster but the French control and riot police, who have been arriving here in coachloads over the last few days, are not ill-prepared for any troublemakers.

Marseilles is a hard, grit-in-the-eye sort of city. The French Foreign Legion still has a recruiting office here ("We are neither mercenaries nor outlaws, but men of action and elite soldiers", says a poster) and the local police have a reputation for toughness. They have been warning English fans there is to be no trouble.

Drunk fans face a night in the cells until they sober up, people sleeping on the beach will be moved on, and serious offenders will be brought before a magistrate for summary justice. The British Consul-General, Ian Davies, has warned that the English should not expect any special treatment.

Adding to the atmosphere of expectation over the weekend has been the speculation that two huge shiploads of Tunisian fans are due to arrive in the city. Marseilles has a large north African population and the Tunisian team can be sure of a lot of local support when they run out on to the carefully manicured turf of the Stade Velodrome.

Just where the fans will be laying their heads after the match, however, remains to be seen.