Marseille: The Aftermath

by | Jun 12, 2016

It used to be said said that there were three groups of people amongst those that make up a typical football support. At one end of the spectrum sits a tiny minority whose sole intention is to fight. If they get to take in a match, then that’s all very well, but that isn’t their raison d’etre for being there. At the other end of the spectrum are the vast majority, who have no interest in causing any trouble. They are there to watch the match and loath those who cause trouble, since it is they who attract all the negative attention, which not only reflects badly on the vast majority, but also makes their experience so much worse, whether through additional security measures, suspicious looks from locals who can’t tell from looking who’s out for a fight and who isn’t, and, of course, the inevitable newspaper headlines the next morning. And this morning, in Marseille, is most definitely the morning after the night before.

The extent to which there may be disorder of a significant nature – the smaller group of hardcore troublemakers are easily isolated and contained, if the will of there to do so on the part of local police – often comes down to the third subset of a travelling support. These are people who would normally probably consider themselves “supporters” in a conventional sense, but who will probably drink too much and, if there’s a fight happening, or they believe their “pride” to be under attack, will allow themselves to be drawn into the sort of pitched battles that we saw in Marseille yesterday and the day before. It has always felt as though England have a larger than normal number of this particular grouping, and it is this that means that problems tend to follow the England team around in a way that doesn’t happen with most other international teams.

The stories emerging from Marseille yesterday evening coupled with the incidents at Le Velodrome at full-time last night indicate that what happened in the city yesterday was very different to what happened there on Friday. Yesterday’s events all seem to point the finger of blame mostly in the direction of organised Russian hooligan gangs who traveled from their home country with the specific intention of causing as much trouble as they possibly could and, while it is evident that English supporters have a clear case to answer regarding this violence, the likes of which we haven’t seen surrounding an England match for many years, what happened inside the stadium – as well, most likely, as a lot of what happened outside it yesterday – was the result of deliberate targeting by both Russian troublemakers and locals with grievances and long memories.

We cannot speak for the clear problems that Russia has with this, other than to say that, with the country due to host a World Cup finals in two years time, it is to be hoped that the comments of the Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko, who claimed that there was no trouble inside Le Velodrome last night, to have been deliberately disingenuous. The likelihood of many people wishing to travel there for a tournament cannot be considered terribly high at the moment, and if Mutko seriously believes what he said yesterday, supporters’ reasoning for not attending would be entirely understandable. After all, his comments do not sound fitting for someone who will have a degree of responsibility for people’s safety in 2018. It’s difficult to build a coherent case to argue that Russia will be guaranteed safe for visiting supporters in two years time, especially if the sports minister can ignore the evidence of his own eyes so readily.

None of this, however, means that the English are blameless. There were clearly many who were happy enough to get involved in trouble once a fuse was lit, and the confrontational nature of so much as their singing – “No surrender to the IRA”, “Ten German bombers”, “If it wasn’t for the English you’d be krauts” and “Fuck off Europe, we’re all voting out” still, somehow, remain amongst their repertoire, even in 2016 – is hardly likely to ever diffuse tensions in volatile situations. There is a nastiness to a small proportion of England’s support that makes violent reaction feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yesterday, however, there’s little to suggest that the vast majority of England’s support wasn’t more sinned against than sinning, and there’s no question that this was the case inside the stadium.

The reaction of UEFA this morning has fitted with this. They have initiated disciplinary proceedings against Russia, whilst leaving England well alone, for the time being, at least. This is because they are only taking into account the trouble which occurred within the stadium last night, and if this is the case one can only wonder whether it would be appropriate for them to initiate proceedings against themselves. After all, this match was, from the moment that it was drawn, considered to be one of the highest security risks of the tournament. The sanctity of “the draw”, however, seems to have been considered more important than the safety of those attending the match and switching it to a less volatile city never seems to have been seriously considered. Even if we disregard this, the events of the last forty-eight hours should have hinted to the organisers that this match required a different level of security to others. Even before kick-off in Marseille last night, however, people inside Le Velodrome were using social media to highlight how feeble the segregation was between supporters.

Likewise, the police have questions to answer concerning the extent to which their heavy-handed methods only seemed to pour oil onto an already burning fire. Their apparent eagerness to deploy canisters of tear gas at the blink of an eye may well have reached its targets in terms of dispersing crowds, but this alone isn’t enough to settle large, tense and hostile crowds, and their lack of nuance seems to have only made a series of very bad situations considerably worse than they already were. Between their being too little security inside the stadium and too much outside of it, there can be little question that this has not been a terribly glorious couple of days for the organisers of the tournament, either. The pictures from within the stadium spoke for themselves. We came terribly close to an appalling tragedy last night, and this must not be allowed to happen again.

The key to the whole of the repugnant events of the last couple of days is that… it’s complicated. There’s no one side at which blame should be directed, and there are few who emerge from it all with a great deal of credit. It may well be expedient for the English to blame the Russians, the Russians to blame the English and for everybody to blame the French, but the only conclusion that we can reach with any degree of certainty is that, the morning after the night before, apportioning blame should take second place to ensuring that this doesn’t occur again. England should, for the good of that vast majority of peaceful supporters, request to not have to play in Marseille again, if for no other reason than the protection of the majority of their own supporters. Russia should accept a degree of culpability and make explicitly clear exactly how they will protect people traveling there for the World Cup in two years time. UEFA and the tournament organisers should be more more flexible and thoughtful when considering where to host these matches. And the police should drastically rethink their crowd management techniques, since these have clearly failed dismally over the last couple of days. If these understandings can be reached, perhaps the rest of this tournament will pass off relatively peacefully. It’s very difficult to believe, however, that this will happen. There might have been multiple deaths in Marseille last night, and to a point we are lucky that this wasn’t the case. That it should even get to the point of saying this, however, tells us as much as we need to know about how dreadful the events of the last two days have been, and everybody concerned holds a small degree of blame for this.

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