The English supporters were literally punch drunk when the Russians arrived on Sunday afternoon, some wearing black Lokomotiv and CSKA Moscow T-shirts and ready to beat the hell out of them.
The English tried to run but were incapable of doing so – either too drunk or too slow to avoid a hammering by a faster, fitter, more muscular group who were extremely sober. The Russians carried gum-shields in their bum-bags, mixed martial arts fighting gloves and other fighting implements. The ensuing fights left 19 Britons hospitalised.
By 8pm, ten Lokomotiv men were grouped around the Stade Velodrome, close to another Russian group whose black T-shirts stated: ‘Orel Butchers – Storm over Europe 2016.’ All were within comfortable hitting distance of the assembled English. The French police were too busy organising themselves into a cordon to see the threat but despite the risible attempts at segregation, the sheer 5,000-strong force of English numbers prevailed. The Russians were sober-minded enough to hit only beatable targets. So the English were able to get on with singing ‘There were 50 German bombers in the air’ with gusto. ‘And the RAF from England shot them down.’
The ferocity and brutality of the Russian attacks are of no surprise to British police intelligence. Russia and some of the eastern European countries are known to have hooligans of monumental brutality. British officers were surprised to learn of the ferocity of fans wielding metal poles when on attachment in Ukraine for the 2012 European Championships.
British police, with decades of experience managing football crowds when peculiarly high volumes of alcohol have been taken, have no jurisdiction on this soil. They are acting as ‘cultural interpreters’ – intermediaries between the tear gas wielding French Gendarmerie Nationale and English fans. They are not in France in vast numbers. The French have requested a smaller contingent than Germany received at its 2006 World Cup, where only one British nation was represented. Neither British nor French have had any scope to influence Uefa’s decision to schedule a match of high-risk violence at 9pm on a Saturday night on the Mediterranean coast was wise. Police say Uefa had insisted the rules were cast in stone: the time and place would be dictated by team names being drawn.
But in the aftermath of scenes which ask anew how Fifa can allow its next World Cup to be staged in Russia, the conduct of an English minority in the past 72 hours has to be questioned. When you are in that small majority who have spent so long drinking and singing ‘God save the Queen’ ‘Rule Britannia’ or ’50 German bombers’ to become obnoxious, you advertise exactly where you are. (The Queen Victoria pub on the harbour, quite naturally.)
When there are violent French groups from the no-go lands up in the Marseilles mountains or suited and booted Russians within reach, risks come attached. They increase when a minority within the English minority include “ISIS where are you?” among the anthems. That taunt is not much less obscene than racism in the current climate. There are no older, wiser heads in the group to tell those individuals to cut it out and that they are embarrassing themselves. The Russians with the MMA gear sought out the English for a reason.
By Saturday afternoon the minority had advertised itself as being prepared for a fight. Some of its number also have a remarkably low tolerance threshold. “We saw the bottle come over first and you know, everyone knows in the world, you’re going to retaliate aren’t you?” one England fan told me after the first night of clashes and tear gas on Friday. When riot shields were placed in front of English fans at the gates to the Stade Velodrome, to regulate the flow into the stadium, some thrashed at them with their forearms.
If some of these people look at themselves, they will admit it has taken only the slightest provocation. But hours of continuous drinking is not conducive to a moment’s reflection, especially when you view yourself as the occupiers; pitching a flag and staking a temporary claim to someone else’s city.
The dog’s abuse comes thick and fast for any who suggest that any degree of culpability can be laid at England’s door. Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham got some on Saturday morning for suggesting –correctly - that the English, though provoked, were "not blameless” in all of this. The French police have a terror threat on their hands. They are vastly preoccupied, without having intoxicated Englishmen to cope with.
English supporters have certainly not become propagators of violence, as they were three decades ago. They are not organising fighting. But drink-fuelled disorder has been gradually creeping back. It reared its head again on the night of England's abandoned game against Poland in a drenched Warsaw in 2012, when the national stadium's retractable roof was not used. In March 2015, the Italian Carbinieri were persuaded by ‘spotters’ that raucous scenes in several Turin bars was not going to turn violent and that the British officers could handle it. A potentially serious clash was avoided.
A tram was bounced off its tracks and windows smashed in Basel six months later, where Roy Hodgson's side beat Switzerland 2-0. On the streets of Alicante weeks later, young Englishmen taunted and fought each other in the streets after the 2-0 defeat to Spain. At least 20 were involved. Alcohol is always at the centre of these episodes. British police’s keenness to be actively involved in France stems from what they have known all along: that it is a big opportunity for the minority who choose this form of self-expression. It is the first international tournament easily accessible from British shores for years.
There is no sense that the problem will be isolated to Marseille. The authorities, in their wisdom, have suggested England fans travel to Lille to drink before Thursday’s game against Wales, because of an alcohol ban in nearby Lens, where the fixture takes place. Russia play Slovakia on Wednesday… in Lille. Yet the minority is still able to shape the course of the coming days, as the English nation looks on. A starting point may be remembering that they are guests in a foreign country; not occupiers.
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