Football: We went to see a concert but war broke out

At Large In France
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The Independent Online
I DOUBT it will stand as a world record. I covered 200 metres in approximately 10 seconds, even with a backpack on board. But, strictly speaking, it was fear-assisted. Having 50-odd French riot police in Marseilles kitted out with helmets and shields and assorted weaponry chasing you down the street really puts wings on your feet. A couple of hundred other runners and I were pausing for breath and congratulating ourselves on winning the race when the tear-gas grenade landed. That's the way the French police are - poor losers.

There was supposed to be a concert on at the Vieux Port. I had no idea a small war was about to break out. There were conflicting accounts of exactly who had started it: a couple of Provencal women reckoned that the `Rosbifs' (Brits) had started it all. "They shouldn't have burned that Tunisian flag. The Tunisians can put up with a lot, but their flag - that is sacred."

But Mouad, an Algerian Marseillais and firm England supporter (there is no love lost between Algerians and Tunisians), maintained that, on the contrary, it was all the fault of the Tunisians. "I saw it. There were five or six English walking down the street, peacefully drinking their beer, and then suddenly they came running back in the opposite direction with about a thousand Tunisians right behind them." What everyone agreed on was that once it had started, bus-loads of locals from the suburbs or the "quartier pourri" ("rotten quarter") pitched in, enjoying nothing more than mixing it with all-comers.

Whether or not England supporters are guilty of starting trouble, they certainly attract it, if my experience is anything to go by.

I was with Dave, a Wolves supporter from Stourbridge. He had asked if he could borrow my phone card at the station to ring the local youth hostel. He didn't have a ticket for the game, and he was indignant about the going rate among touts of pounds 200, but he remained optimistic about a last-minute drop in price. "They won't shift them all at that price. They'll have to unload them."

We ended up sharing a room in the Sainte Marie Hotel, the seediest, shabbiest dive in town, and were grateful for it too as there wasn't an unoccupied bed in town. The building across the street had collapsed, leaving a bath dangling on the third floor (which was more than we had) and causing Dave to reminisce of Mexico in '86. "I don't mind about earthquakes," he said. "I just hope I don't wake up crawling with cockroaches."

He admitted that he had got a "u" - for "unclassified" - in his French O-level, but "unjust" would have been more appropriate, because when we found ourselves surrounded by several hundred hostiles, and we had to resort to speaking French to blend in, he turned out to be remarkably fluent. He was a good runner too and took tear-gas totally in his stride.

Even in France, Marseilles is regarded as a foreign country. Like nearly everyone else in town, we started off worrying over being ripped off, particularly when we came across an empty shoulder bag in the street outside our hotel, emptied out and dumped. But in the end we were panicking about losing a lot more than our belongings.

Along the Quai du Port, and up as far as Place Thiers, there was a fair amount of blood on the ground and general havoc. A miscellaneous crew had taken to lobbing missiles at hotels and cafes which were suspected of harbouring Brits and overturning vehicles (a VW camper with foreign number plates was implausibly deemed British), not to mention looting a few shops which, so far as I know, had no connection with England whatever. It was at this point that the French riot police decided to sort out the trouble-makers and their collective gaze fixed on Dave and me and the order was given to charge.

It was not the only case of mistaken identity during the night. A couple of girls took me for Ravanelli and asked for my autograph. A pair of heavy dudes also stopped to have a word. One of them happened to be carrying what I rapidly identified as a pick-axe handle, although I tried not to look at it too closely. They did not want my autograph. One said to me: `Vous etes avec qui, vous?' Which loosely translates as "Whose side are you on?" "May the best side win," I said, striving for my most authentic accent. They wandered off to ask the two Provencal women whose side they were on. I still don't know if we were talking football or something else entirely. I didn't like to inquire too closely.

I lost Dave in the ruckus but I found him again back at the Sainte Marie. During the night he had a dream ("prophetic" he called it) in which a team in white kit won the World Cup. "The only problem is there are at least four teams in white," he admitted.

When I left him in the morning he was rooting through his bag looking for his lucky shirt. First of all he selected a T-shirt with an image of someone drinking beer on it. "I've never lost with this one on," he said. "On the other hand, it does identify me as English, doesn't it? Maybe I should wear this Adidas shirt instead. It's not so lucky, but I've got a feeling it'll be a lot safer."

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