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TWO years ago, a big group of us went to Brazil for the World Cup. I might have mentioned it. We had such a great time, we were determined to head over to Euro 2016 in France, to take part in another carnival of football. A nice weekend in the South of France was identified, tickets were secured. Everything looked great.

Then came the draw. England vs Russia in Marseille. About as bad as it gets. It was miles away from what we were after — an experience like Brazil, where fans mixed and sang in the sunshine. Suddenly our group of a dozen, with eight who had paid for flights, became fewer and fewer. In the end only three of us went over, most prepared to write off the money they had spent to avoid the inevitable trouble.

I wanted to go, though. I’d never been to an England game, not least in another country, so it was another experience to tick off. Surely their fans couldn’t be as bad as people made out? When my uncle discovered he was ill, he drove to the World Cup in 2006 and paid, what he described as, “an obscene amount of money” for a ticket to watch England there. He spoke of a real mix of people. Of late night football games against German lads in camp sites. Stories you don’t hear about.

I thought trouble could be avoided and was determined to enjoy myself, and not let fear win. I was wrong though. That was the genuinely scary thing about Marseille. That trouble couldn’t be avoided. That danger was always round the corner, from different groups of people. That you felt there was nowhere to relax, because the most peaceful situation could turn any minute.

We arrived on the Friday to news there had been clashes, between England fans and Marseille fans, the night before. It seemed contained to one pub called ‘The Queen Victoria” though, and we were fairly confident we wouldn’t be going there. Still under the illusion that any trouble would be contained, we freshened up and headed to the Port.

This was part of what made Marseille the perfect storm. You are advised by everyone, from official sources to taxi drivers, to stay in the Vieux Port area. That you won’t be safe in Marseille anywhere else. Which is fine, but it means everyone is contained in one place, and that anyone who wants to find large groups of England fans can do it easily.

It was hard to imagine a nicer day, until it wasn’t. We had lunch outside one nice restaurant and then moved down to a bar further along. Apart from the €7 price of a pint everything was lovely. There were England fans in the bar but they were far from the stereotype. Ben Johnson wrote last week about “fat pasty skinned dopes who wear cropped trousers and jarg trainees“, but they are not so much the minority, as completely extinct.

Some older England fans are obviously still about, and the beer bellies haven’t all gone. Certainly not in our group. But most of them looked like Harry Kane. It’s well groomed lads in chino shorts and boat shoes. It’s trainee lawyers on summer holidays, having a year off from Marbella. At times I felt like I’d wandered into a filming of The Only Way is Essex. Not exactly my sort of people, but nothing you’d be looking to set water cannons off at either. Their songs were about Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli. They looked like they couldn’t care less about Brexit.

As the afternoon turned into evening, some trouble kicked off up by The Queen Victoria again. Riot police, concerned with the larger groups drinking outside, came to monitor and, by all accounts, some knobhead threw a bottle. Instead of arresting said knobhead they set off tear gas, stormed in, and shut the pub, and the pub next door. Then they arrested the knobhead, along with anyone else who objected.

There are huge problems with such heavy handed policing. The first thing it does is punish innocent people enjoying themselves and then, as a by-product, creates ill feeling towards the police, when it would be much more beneficial in the long run to create the opposite. It also just shoves a load of people elsewhere. Drinkers aren’t going to react to a pub closing by going home. They just go somewhere else, which condenses people even further.

Our nice quiet bar got a lot of the overflow. At first it was older fellas, visibly upset about what had just happened. I asked one about it and he said “I don’t understand, we just want to have a good time.” It didn’t feel like the police believed him. Then more fans came down, carrying their own bottles, and the atmosphere changed. They were physically in the bar, but their eyes were everywhere else. Suddenly the Russians, hearing about the trouble, arrived and many disappeared. People started running but it was hard to work out who and at what. Bodies were quickly followed by riot police, who were flanked at all times by camera crews thirsty to capture any violence.

From calm there was now an edge. In less than 30 minutes. The songs in the bar changed with the clientele. From songs about players names to German Bombers and the IRA. It wasn’t our taste, and it was clear that the next bar to be tear gassed would be ours. We finished our drinks and left.

We turned a corner and walked a few minutes away to a pub by the stunning opera house, as it was filling up with well dressed patrons. Surely round here would be fine? There was a small collection of bars and restaurants that looked to be showing the France game, so we made them our home. We could hear the England fans outside the bar we left getting louder and louder, but that seemed like a problem we’d left behind.

Just as the opening match of the tournament was set to kick off, with the hosts facing Romania, we saw England fans running down the street away from danger, with the now familiar sight of tear gas following them. However, tear gas is powerful stuff, as you’d expect. Like the smoke in the tv show Lost it seemed to hone in on more human beings, turning the corner and flying up the road up towards ourselves. We tried to retreat into the restaurant, but not quick enough. It stung our eyes and our throats instantly.

We got into the restaurant but it had made it into their too, so there was no real escape. A young French lad had come out with his dad, to watch the football and have some dinner, and was crying. An England fan tried to cheer him up by giving him some badges, but he was too shaken up. It must be a shock to be sat in a quiet restaurant with your dad and have that happen. They had to go home without seeing a ball kicked.

Some supporters from Essex made their way down who had been in the bar where the tear gas went off, where we had been a couple of hours earlier. They bemoaned “dickhead” England fans, who again responded to riot police with confrontational behaviour. But they were also incredulous at the police marching at them at all. One had been hit by a baton across the back for the crime of “being on the wrong side of their line”. They were genuinely good company, not bad lads at all, on their first trip away with England.

Any idea of that being the end of the trouble, in our ‘quiet’ restaurant opposite the opera house, was misplaced. Straight after the game some England fans smoking outside were attacked by lads from Marseille. One lad was pepper sprayed to the head. We were chatting to him inside afterwards, a Spurs fan who was into his boxing. We chatted about Scouse boxers, trying to take his mind off it, but blisters were forming on him as we spoke. It was our cue to leave.

Saturday was more of the same. Wondering where you can go for a quiet drink in the sun. Thinking you had found it. Seeing a picturesque street turned into a battle zone in the blink of an eye, this time by a fight, unbelievably, between locals and Paris St Germain ultras, who had decided a weekend in Marseille might be fun. Moules frites and white wine, to broken bottles and tear gas in the blink of an eye.

Those bars quickly shut, and from there we found a square where England fans were singing loudly, surrounded by their flags. The atmosphere felt very different compared to the other bars. I actually took a video on my mates phone to try and tweet, to demonstrate how England fans could manage to have fun at a tournament like everyone else. I never got it up before the England fans were ambushed by Russians. Coming down one entrance to the square, goading the English into a fight, before attacking from behind.

As bottles started to rain at our feet and chairs flew through the air I got split up from my mates but was invited into a house by a Frenchman, who quickly shut the door behind about six of us. I sat on the stairs with two French girls and an English girl who was visibly shaken. Another Englishman then came through the door with his arm bleeding, so one of the French girls got up and tried to help him stop the bleeding with a tea towel.

The English girl got a call to say it was safe to go out, so we did. We were probably inside around five minutes but the damage caused in that time was considerable. Bar owners quickly packed up outside furniture and gathered them under closing shutters. An England fan was flat on his back unconscious receiving CPR. It didn’t look like they were getting any life out of him. To be honest, I thought he was dead.

There wasn’t much more to do after that but head to the ground. Unfortunately, because of the trouble, the police had decided to close the nearest metro station and stop all the trams going towards the stadium. This again seemed like remarkably short sighted policing. People still needed to get to the game, so what was the point of making it harder? With no taxis, and no one to help direct you, it just led to thousands of people wandering aimlessly into Marseille hoping to find some transport. Which, in the circumstances, probably wasn’t very safe.

You’ve seen what happened in the ground. I didn’t. I got off as soon as Russia equalised. I knew what would happen. We tried to get back to civilisation but, after successfully getting on a first metro, they decided to stop the trains. So again we were left to wander through town. Most of the bars were shut so we just ended up going home. In bed at midnight both nights. Must be a record that.

The next day we went to Nice, which was a massive relief. It is fair to say Northern Ireland v Poland was a very different experience. Nice itself seemed better equipped to deal with large numbers of football fans, there were better plans to get them about, but also mainly that the fans were in a different frame of mind. One of enjoying the experience, not just themselves, but the other side too. Where not all behaviour is perfect, but is done with a smile. Which can go a long way.

I tweeted, to much disdain from people sat at home, that I felt sorry for England fans in Marseille. I stand by that. Many different groups turned up specifically to fight with them, or to fight with ghosts of England’s past.  A lot of has been said along the lines of “Why can’t England be more like X”, but I can’t imagine many groups of young men, from any country, reacting much differently, when faced with those levels of provocation or aggression. Many England fans have done nothing to be tarred with the same brush as past generations. Yet they are stuck with it now, with every hooligan group in the world wanting to test themselves against them.

They also had to deal with a police force low on ideas but heavy on tear gas. A police force who just wanted to deal with the latest problem as quickly as possible, without any thoughts for problems they were creating in the future. A police force who saw every football fan as an equal problem, unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between trouble causers and normal fans.

I also think the issues around the England fan songbook is a touch overplayed. A small percentage of the songs are far from to my taste, but I didn’t like some of the Northern Ireland ones either. In fact some of them, related to World War 2, are the same! I’m sure there are plenty of chants from other countries in other languages too that I wouldn’t be sure about, if I could understand them. The main song you heard through out the tournament from England fans was about not wanting to go home.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qi2i1k2uGGM

However, despite all that, England fans do seem different to everyone else. As a country, way beyond football, we don’t seem to do nationalism very well — there’s a massive example of this going on at the minute. Focussing on the football, whilst other fans seem to be able to support their country without seeming aggressive or superior to another one, that seemed beyond many England fans I witnessed. Of all the fans who I have come across, at different international tournaments, they are by far the worst at mixing.

There are loads of videos online of fans from different countries singing and dancing together at the Euros. Many England fans seem to take it as a personal affront when other fans step onto their ‘turf’. England fans just want to stick together and puff their chests out to the world. Like another holiday to an English resort abroad, rather than a 24 team celebration of footy. It’s up to them, I suppose. Whatever floats your boat.

It’s a real shame though, not least because they are missing out. One of my highlights of the trip was Poland fans responding to negative songs about Lewandowski by chanting “you can stick your Kyle Lafferty up your hole”. With England fans you’d have sensed it was about to go off. The Northern Ireland fans just rolled about laughing. I lost count of the number of Europeans I heard England fans being openly rude to. Just for tiny things like trying to talk about football, celebrating a French win (in France, the nerve!) or even asking if a chair was taken in a bar.

This doesn’t mean they deserve, or warrant being attacked, of course, like some ridiculous tweets I saw when I was away. The amount of people who criticised English violence, and then wished Russian violence on them, was hilarious. Do you like violence or not, folks? However, English fan behaviour does mean that, more often than not, cities would rather not have English fans there. Or teams will want to avoid England in tournaments because it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Or the reputation of a whole country dips slightly from those who have encountered the support. Which is a shame because there is a lot about England which is genuinely worth liking.

Before the violence at the Stade Velodrome, England took over the stadium in a way that was genuinely impressive. The wall of white was matched by a wall of noise and support for the players. England can support their team well. I just don’t know how you remove all the nasty elements away from it. Not violent like many think, but too often xenophobic, boorish, divisive and, whether it is meant or not, hostile towards locals.

Don’t take me home? By Saturday night I was ready to go, which is a shame. Someone should tell the England fans, as well as the French police and the Russian authorities, who seem to have no intention of stopping those who come solely to fight from travelling, that it’s all meant to be a laugh. Until they do I won’t be rushing back to watching England abroad again.

 

Listen to our second TAW Special on the trouble in Marseille here.

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