Marseille: How To Make Sense Of This Chaos?

by | Jun 11, 2016

There were tears in France, today. At one end of the country, Dimitri Payet wept as he left the pitch at the Stade de France, substituted after scoring the host nation’s winning goal against Romania with a shot of such perfect power and trajectory that it may well end up in The Louvre. At the other end of the country, though, the tears flowed from the eyes of both the innocent and the guilty, the result of gas fired by police as supporters of England, Russia, others, and the police fought pitched battles in the bars, streets and alleyways of the beautiful city of Marseille.

It started before a ball was even kicked, for Christ’s sake, and, before I go any further, I should point out that the specifics of who did, shouted, sang or said what to whom is an absolute, complete irrelevance in this case. If the first point that you take from this is the origins of a perceived slight, you’re backing the wrong horse. You’re on the wrong side of the argument. Grown men should be able to go to football matches and drink alcohol without this being the dismal result, and to suggest otherwise insults the overwhelming majority of us who go our entire lives without ever throwing a plastic chair at a riot policeman.

After more than four decades of this bullshit, we are out of simple answers. We have, more than once in recent years, started to allow ourselves to believe this time we’d tamed the worst of it. Incidents don’t occur like this to any significant level at domestic matches any more, after all, and I’d bet a pound to a penny that you don’t see a large number of these people at Wembley very often. But that doesn’t absolve anybody of any responsibility. There is an element of fetishisation of hooligan culture in the white noise that makes up popular culture these days. Perhaps it’s something that we should reconsider.

But it has been a full decade since we saw such scenes as we saw today, and what occurred in Germany in 2006 didn’t seem as severe as those that we witnessed today. Perhaps a prevalence of social media, streaming videos and instant comment from journalists right there in the middle of it is exaggerating what we all witnessed yesterday. It can be very difficult to tell. But we shouldn’t seek to trivialise it, and we certainly shouldn’t seek to deflect blame too far from those that were in the centre of it all, arms out-stretched, goading and spittle-inflecked as ever.

For all of that, questions should be asked elsewhere as well. Was this meeting pre-arranged or spontaneous? If it was the former, is there a chance that those charged with monitoring those people took their eyes off the ball? If it was the latter, was it that there were a large number of ticketless people there? How many of those involved had tickets? Who are they? Have they been involved in this sort of thing before? These are questions that require answers if we are to ever actually start to understand this properly, and we certainly don’t seem to at the moment.

Of course, it may be very easy to blame England supporters alone, and could even possibly be very convenient for some individuals or organisations. There do, however, seem to have been three sets of supporters – from England, Russia and Marseille – involved and, no matter what we feel about their liberal use of tear gas, whether it should have even been necessary for riot police to even be present in the first place, what seems to have made up their tactics certainly didn’t seem to be successful in quelling outbreaks of disorder over a period of many hours.

Serious questions should be asked of the tournament’s schedulers, as well. Marseille is a city with tensions of its own, and in addition to this the serious disturbances in that very city in 1998 should have given pause for thought to somebody in UEFA with a moderately good memory and an eye for the commonsensical. It is absolutely obvious that these things shouldn’t matter, that any national football team should be able to turn up in any city for a match in a tournament without an entourage of drunken dicks trailing behind them, lobbing plastic chairs around. That much should go without saying. But this is also about protecting those caught up in it. We should be seeking to minimise the likelihood of something like this. And Marseille felt like a tinderbox just waiting to go off, from the moment it was announced.

Tomorrow morning, a familiar pas de deux will begin, with various different groups all seeking to sound very serious without accepting so much of an iota of responsibility for it, in any way. There may be some form of formal apology for our role in the trashing of a city centre, but it’s unlikely that there will be any more than this, formally, at least. The prime minister will put on his stern face and call them “cowards”, the tabloid press will over-use the word “shame”, and neither of them will even pause to consider to consider that, whilst the drip, drip, drip of xenophobia that now drips through our culture might not really be a leading cause of this phenomenon, it could hardly be said to help.

White men – some predictably young, but others bordering on middle-aged – in shorts and polo neck shirts will be frog-marched past cameras. Most of them will probably try to shield their faces. A tabloid newspaper may single out one or two of them for special attention. A few football banning orders will be handed out, and a few people may find their clubs not interested in renewing their season tickets any more if their identities are made public through social media. And no matter what embarrassment, humiliation or worse comes to pass to those identified – presuming they’ve been correctly identified, of course – there won’t be too much sympathy on offer.

There is a certain irony to the fact that this all occurred while Britain is carrying out the dumbest and most disingenuous public debate of which we could ever have conceived. Perhaps we should cancel our referendum. Perhaps the rest of Europe should vote on whether they want anything whatsoever to do with us any more. Were they to do so and vote for Brexit, the fair-minded amongst us could hardly complain. After all, we sit on the sidelines, already with economic and political concessions that no other nation in Europe has, complaining about everything we don’t like, and periodically a few hundred of our most violent pitch up in one of their city centres and play a part in smashing it up.

But we must cling onto the fact that those involved are a tiny minority, for the sake of our own sanity, if nothing else. And what can we, the peaceful majority, say under such circumstances, anyway? Should we apologise, if no official channels do? We could decide to just chuck it all in altogether, but no good will come of walking away from the game. That happened throughout the late 1970s and the early 1980s, and that left them as noisier constituency of a smaller group, overall. And in any case, why should it be us that do so? Punishing the many for the crimes of a few should remain an anathema of an idea. The Football Association refusing to take tickets, draconian travel bans, or whatever other hare-brained schemes pop into the brains of publicity-seeking newspaper columnists over the course of the next few days fall specifically into this category.

But I don’t have any answers, other than to say that we must start by seeking to understand the exact nature of it. In this eventuality, however, we should be prepared for the possibility of there being no way to extract any sense or any logic from it all. Perhaps the fact of the matter is that this will always be with us, an indelible brown stain, a devil sitting on our shoulder with its arms out-stretched, a plastic pint glass of warm lager in its hands, and a face contorted by a combination of rage and enjoying being enraged. But there is a point at which all we have left is to shrug our shoulders and sigh with resignation, even though this feels like conceding defeat – if not entirely, then in part, at least. And we probably just need to accept that this conflation of idiocies is a shadow that is fated to follow the rest of us around in perpetuity.

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