Fan unrest, violence cast grim shadow at Euro 2016

Iain Macintosh was in Marseille, France for the three days of fan unrest and violence at Euro 2016. Here's his account.

MARSEILLE, France -- The England supporters will leave Marseille on Sunday, some to go home, others to head for Lens, where the team meet Wales on Thursday. Most will be glad to get out.

Their three-day spell here started with one much-publicised, small-scale skirmish with French police on Thursday, continued with a series of flashpoints on Friday and a crescendo of violence in the city on Saturday that ended with Russian fans charging English fans at full time in the Stade Velodrome.

There are elements of the English support that have behaved appallingly over the weekend, but not all. Not even nearly all. The vast majority have behaved well, many of whom told me they were teargassed by authorities. There is a lot of blame and there are many people with whom to share it. But this story is not simply a repeat of the English violence that characterised the game decades ago. This is a story of clashes instigated by numerous parties, in some cases English, in others French locals, and in others Russian supporters.

Speaking before the widespread violence on Saturday afternoon, Kevin Miles, chief executive of the Football Supporters' Federation (a self-described democratic organisation representing the rights of fans in England and Wales) acknowledged the faults of some travelling fans.

"It's complex, it's not easy," he told ESPN FC. "There's no escaping the fact that a small minority of England fans clearly don't know how to behave. But it's more complex than that."

Miles believes that the frequent use of tear gas by French law enforcement has exacerbated the situation.

"The policing has been such that it has escalated things rather than calming them down. Tear gas doesn't remove individuals, it punishes everyone. It alienates people, it makes people angry."

The national police did not respond to requests for comment.

There has certainly been plenty of evidence of that in recent days. After the initial trouble on Thursday night, tensions were heightened the following day. The first signs could be heard as early as 3 p.m. local time. You could hear them from the far side of the old dock. English supporters, tourists and French residents alike exchanged looks as a time-honoured song rolled ominously across the water.


Contrary to stereotypes, England supporters are not a homogenous lump of sun-burned flesh. As with all groups of fans, from all nations, they are a varied and eclectic bunch. There are people with several tournaments of experience under their belts and there are wide-eyed newcomers. But there is always one group that makes itself known quickly; it draws its members from up and down the country, it forms where the sun is hot and the beer is cold. Like attracts like. Banter breeds banter, and sometimes, something more. In Marseille, on a blazing-hot Friday afternoon, the group formed outside the Queen Victoria Pub by the old port. They were in strong voice.

At 4 p.m., their numbers had swollen to approximately 100. Their declaration of nationality complete, the pages of the songbook were turned. A small group of French supporters approached with a Tricolour and began to sing their own songs.

It brought an instant reaction. "If it wasn't for the English, you'd be Krauts!" they sang. Then, to press home the point, "Where were you in World War II?" There was nastier stuff, too.

"We've got a robust stance on chanting," said Miles. "We don't stand for racist, sexist, homophobic or other prejudicial chants. My personal view on those [World War II-themed] songs: They're boring. They're pathetic. They have nothing to do with football. They're not necessary and they don't win us any friends. We'd much rather focus on the football."

This is the unpleasant element of English support. Intimidation, bullying in the name of banter and an unhealthy obsession with a war that ended long before many of them were born. But on that afternoon it did not, by any stretch, represent anything approaching a majority. From outside neighbouring bars, English supporters stood and watched, some amused, some shaking their heads in contempt. On the three sides of Marseille's old port, thousands of English fans sat happily in the sun, drinking and chatting. They mixed pleasantly with both the locals and supporters of other nations.

But outside the Queen Victoria, the songs grew louder, drinks in plastic glasses flew into the air and the French police began to look on with increasing interest.

Before long, their numbers had greatly increased and their appearance had changed. Helmets and armour had been donned, long riot shields were at hand. Among their ranks, a plainclothes English police officer moved about, passing on information and guidance. At around 5.30 p.m., they moved in.

It's unclear what prompted the advance. Most witnesses said that the attack came out of the blue, but one said that an English supporter tossed a glass bottle at the officers. In England, the police might have held their lines. In France, with tensions high and patience low, tear gas was deployed and the sing-song was broken up, with at least one arrest.

An uneasy peace held as the police took up position outside the pub and up and down the street. Many of the singers moved further down the port and began to sing about 10 German bombers (a children's song from WWII often sung by football fans) while booting a football back and forth across the road. The situation became more intense when a small group of approximately 20 Russian supporters arrived and marched down the street. Some English supporters reacted defiantly, a couple even approached the Russian group. A group of armoured officers quickly moved in between them, one of them snapping out his narrow baton in readiness. Common sense took over and the Russians were ushered away.

As evening fell and kick-off for France's clash with Romania approached, another group of English supporters, approximately 250, formed in the town square. Like the first group, they were loud, but there was no hostility and there were no songs about the war. Indeed, when the attack came, they were singing about curry.

Witnesses said that a group of 20-30 "locals" approached and then began hurling bottles into the crowd. That brought a ferocious response and an exchange of both punches and thrown chairs. The smaller group detached itself from the melee and retreated to a narrow side street, with some English supporters later saying that they were encouraged to follow, an old trick that has seen innumerable English fans stabbed in alleyways across Europe over the years.

Riot police moved in again, with the obligatory opening volley of tear gas. A couple of minutes later, a lone motorcyclist returned and began to goad the supporters. His efforts were halted in emphatic fashion when a red-shirted English fan sprinted toward his slowly circling bike and kicked him out of the saddle and onto the ground. Again, the heavy presence of riot police brought an end to hostilities.

But the scent of tear gas was in the air once again after France scored their dramatic winning goal. At least two separate volleys were launched, the smoke filling up the narrow side streets that led to the town square. England fans, many now eager to depart, were held at the port for 20 minutes by a line of armoured officers. By 1 a.m., the trouble had faded. A Yannick Bolasie song rang out incongruously in the night. English fans still wandered the streets, some wobblier than others.

The next morning, all seemed calm. It wouldn't last.

"We were sat at a bar having a drink with other England fans," said supporter Mark Crawley. "About 50 Russians, bare-chested, came running along. A few England fans took exception. The police started baton-charging the England fans and all of a sudden people with masks on came running back to the England fans. All the police did was baton-charge and tear gas the England fans."

Again, police fired tear gas into crowds by the port and deployed their water cannons for the first time. UEFA officials "firmly condemned" the violence. Video footage appears to show supporters of both England and Russia involved in the trouble. There were reports that two English supporters were left in critical condition in the hospital. Many England supporters spoke of more tear gas on the way to the stadium.

Alex Smith and four friends drove a camper van, covered in England flags into Marseille, having travelled down for the game.

"We were looking for somewhere to park and a group of Russian fans, maybe 10 or so, stormed out of a bar and surrounded the van, banging on the windows. They didn't do any damage, but they ripped off the flags, even the ones inside that were held up by the windows. They shook the glass and pulled them out."

What followed at the Velodrome could have been much worse. Toward the end of the game, a flare was launched from an area containing Russian supporters, two pyrotechnic devices were ignited and there was a loud bang, presumably from a firework. So much for UEFA's heightened security.

With English fans filling approximately 75 percent of the stadium, segregation was minimal. One pitifully inadequate line of yellow-jacketed stewards was all that stood between the bulk of the Russian supporters and many thousands of English fans.

At full time, a scuffle broke out and Russian supporters charged. Almost all the English fans moved for safety, some to the exits, others climbing over barriers and dropping down to the side of the pitch. Having taken the stand, the Russian supporters advanced to the upper tier and began to haul down English flags before more stewards arrived and began to restore order.

UEFA has some serious questions to answer.

The road back to the city from the stadium was long, but uneventful. Russian and English fans walked together with little agitation. Photos were taken with police officers and the mood was benign. But closer to the port, violence broke out again. Groups of supporters ran through the streets throwing bottles. There was nothing in their clothes or their speech to suggest that they were English.

Once again, the smell of tear gas floated through the air, and once again, the police arrived in force. The few English supporters remaining on the streets looked on, as baffled and bemused as everyone else.

This has been a grim weekend for football and it will take time for the authorities to ascertain what exactly went so badly wrong. But this is not a simple story. This is not "English fans on the rampage." It is more complex, it is more nuanced and it is much, much worse than that.