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Euro 2016: Fear hangs heavy as Russian and English football fans arrive in Lille

After the violence in Marseille, locals are bracing themselves for more trouble in the northern French city

Ian Herbert
Tuesday 14 June 2016 22:38 BST
England fans in Lille

‘Donnez votre sang’ (‘Give blood’) the locals were being asked by uniformed staff issuing leaflets on the Grand Place in Lille on Tuesday – an unfortunate entreaty given the sentiments being felt by many serving in the bars lining its cobbles, who saw the brutal consequences of football hooliganism on their television sets last weekend.

It’s the Russian hooligan element they fear and which creates a sense of unknowing, which is saying something, because they have seen a lot off new things in this place in the past 72 hours.

It didn't long to see why on Tuesday night. By 6.30pm, a bar near the central station had closed its doors after English fans seized one of its tables to defend themselves against Russians who were shaping up to punch them. A member of staff at the bar, Le Palais de la Biere, who would not be named, said: “The English went for a table to defend themselves. The Russians were threatening with fists. We decide we have to close.” French police also seized a supporter, possibly Slovakian, from one bar which two Russians had threatened and marched him away. There were scuffles at another location. Two members of a Russian gang who had been highly visible in Marseille also threw a chair into a bar where football fans gathered. They were from the Orel Butchers group, wearing T-shirts stating: “storm over Europe 2016.”

A familiar pattern.

The tables outside ‘L’Abbaye’, an establishment on Place Rihour off the square, were seized by German football supporters and used as weapons when they wanted to fight Ukrainians on Saturday night. It is waiter Didier Voquefois’ intention to take them inside before the meeting of Russians and English which the football authorities have, in their infinite wisdom, encouraged in this town, in the next 48 hours.

Enland fans seated at a cafe terrace, wave to a passing police patrol in Lille

The Russians are here to see their team’s European Championship campaign continue on Wednesday afternoon against Slovakia at Lille Metropole, the elegant, angular, steel stadium a few miles out of town. The English have been directed straight to the same place by the authorities because Lens, where their own team face Wales on Thursday, has had no intention of serving alcohol. “Do try Lille instead,” they were told.

People fear what they do not know and that is why the small English minority is not the bete noir here. They are “les idiots”, says, M Voquefois, reflecting on the individuals with their flags of St George who were beaten senseless in the chilling seclusion of Marseille’s side streets on Saturday afternoon. And the Russians? “On a peur,” (‘You fear’) he says.

Self-respecting individuals like Laurent Debuquoit and Laurent Hubert, who smoke in the early morning chill at ‘Le Khedive’, the establishment next door, are proudly French – men’s men who you won’t find admitting to fear of a Russian – and yet they still talk of making sure “les parents” remove “les enfants” from the streets in the evenings to come. An extraordinary precaution to be taking in civilised 21st century society. Certainly not what they thought would be contemplated when they learned the European Championships would be bringing its blue-liveried razzmatazz to this place of Habitat, Bang and Olufsen, Tommy Hilfiger and other symbols of gentility.

No-one seems to know whether the alcohol ban which the French authorities have imposed on Lille from between 6pm Tuesday night and 6am on Friday morning will actually prevail. The French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has been talking since Monday morning about prohibiting alcohol in Euro 2016 towns and yet at midday on Tuesday M Voquefois thought that he would be serving beer all week, albeit inside the establishment and not outside.

English fans singing in Lille city centre

“We serve in these,” he said, demonstrating his plastic cups. For the proprietors of the establishment, selling beer at the championships is the summer’s golden ticket and not to be foregone lightly. One hotelier said he would be serving until 11pm all week but 2am on England’s match night. The proprietor of ‘Les Vins Gormands’, Guillaume Semproli, was as unwilling as M Voquefois’ superiors to be spooked out of business. “It is a minority and they are outside of football,” he said of the Russians.

The unpredictability of what these people are up against revealed itself at the stadium, where within an hour of the Russian team being subjected to a suspended expulsion from the tournament on Tuesday, the team’s manager Leonid Slutsky and striker Artem Dzyuba sat down to talk.

England fan on violence

There was a weird preamble where a succession of Russian journalists asked Slutsky about the finer points of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the English (“They would ostracise us if we asked about the violence,” one later confided) before the English journalistic contingent encouraged a discussion of how 300 black-shirted Russians had beaten some of their compatriots to within an inch of their lives, three days ago.

Slutsky was as implacable and unmoving as he ever is, statuesque in the manner of Leonid Brezhnev, which was why the presence of the 27-year-old Muscovite and Zenit St Petersburg striker Artem Dzyuba at the press conference table seemed for all the world like an act of pre-calculation. Dzyuba seized on the subject and sneered at it, smirking at Slutsky as question upon question of Russian aggression poured in from the floor.

Russian striker Artem Dzyuba alongside head coach Leonid Slutski, in Lille

He grabbed at his microphone when this correspondent suggested that video footage suggested his claim of 50:50 degrees of blame in Marseille were, frankly, rubbish. “French authorities that gave you your information?” he said, and it was unclear for a moment whether that he expected an answer. “I have other information.” The British media’s response had been political, he said, part of a conversation about the 2018 World Cup “and people saying they must take it out of Russia.”

Of course, the sense of victimhood seemed perverse, set against authentic police intelligence that Russians arrived by the hundred with their gum shields and weapons and mixed martial arts gloves stowed in their bumbags to hammer the English on Saturday. But it belongs to a school of thought that is by no means on the margins of the national conversation in Russia. Many there see the British and Western media as the enemy in all of this, with their own exaggerated levels of coverage and indignation. The black-shirts were actually doing the honourable thing: fighting for Russia’s national honour – with fists, like men, not missiles. Their honour was further demeaned when the national anthem was booed in the football stadium.

The Russian moral parameters are different and that is what creates such a sense of uncertainty about what lies ahead in Lille. If Uefa thought it might dispel Russian violence with its threat of expulsion then it is wrong again. The suspended disqualification only applies to Russian conduct inside Lille Metropole, not on the streets outside. The alcohol ban will mean nothing to Russians intent on violence, either. Those in their number predisposed to fighting are stone cold sober when they do so.

At a bar on Lille’s Rue du Cure Saint Etienne, father and son England supporters Phil Buckton and James Busby could provide a more graphic description of what Russian fighting entailed than perhaps anyone else in Lille on Tuesday morning. The pair had arrived to Marseille rather late on Saturday, flying in from Leeds via Barcelona, but were in the old port by mid-afternoon, when English bottles started to fly. They saw two French fans drape Manchester City and Chelsea shirts out of an upper floor window, which was taken as a provocation by some English. French police moved in and father and son quickly moved away up a side street. It was from there that the pair, from York, heard chanting of a non-footballing kind and then saw perhaps 100 muscular Russians walking in a tight, marshalled unit towards the streets into which the English were then running to escape the tear gas.

Mr Buckton and Mr Busby were nowhere near the ambush which ensued. The few drinks they’d had had not clouded their intuitive sense of where to be to avoid it. “If you want trouble, you can find it,” said Mr Busby. “If you want to avoid it you can.”

The bar managers of Lille will be less free to wander away in the two days to come. “This minority of Russians has attached itself to football. It is not representative of the game,” says M Semproli, behind the counter of his wine store. “This is Marseille, not Lille. It is colder. It is calmer. I don’t expect trouble. But if I must put my shutters down then I will.”

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