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Kicking off at the Euros

14 June 2016 | Lloyd Hughes

England’s Euro 2016 campaign kicked off at the weekend – both on and off the pitch.

Whilst the England team played well before succumbing to a (predictable) last minute equaliser, the main headlines are on what’s happening off the pitch.

English hooliganism has been driven so far underground that it’s all but disappeared. Gone are the days of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s when the English football hooligan was a feared sight on the terraces, dominating Europe and making football violence synonymous with the flag of St George.

It seems a long time since the last time an England game was marred by such.

We know it still happens, at least to some degree – but the hard-core organised firms of West Ham’s ICF, Millwall’s F Troop and the Chelsea Headhunters are long in the past. Whilst these ‘firms’ ostensibly still exist – the crackdown on hooliganism in this UK means it’s mainly the odd scuffle here and there followed by pub-based/internet forum boasting and talks about the ‘good old days’. Football violence is real, but it’s a much more distilled version.

But that distilled version came back to clarity over the weekend, as the spectre of hooliganism at a major football tournament reared its head once more. England fans soaking up booze and sun got off to a bad start in Marseille – Thursday night saw riot police, tear gas and broken glass bottles in abundance.

England yoof, buoyed up by sheer numbers and beers, no doubt felt invincible as they sang imbecilic songs popularised from the terrace of yesteryear – ‘10 German bombers’, ‘no surrender to the IRA’, ‘if it wasn’t for the English you’d be krauts’ and the like. Reports suggest that French police were more restrained than they usually are, but their firing off tear gas and laying about with batons was still more than the English were used to from the softly softly approach of British coppers.

The British police tend to see boisterous singing as worth putting up with if that’s all it is, and don’t go steaming in. Not so the French. Seeing aggressive chanting as a challenge to their authority, they like to lay the law down early on – something which the unaccustomed English fans took exception to and replied to their tear gas canisters with empty beer bottles and bar stools/chairs.

At that stage, it looked like that’s about as serious as it would get – drunken English fans having a face-off with the police, the odd arrest and the usual reputational damage done by your ‘typical Brit abroad’, along with much shaking of heads and a deserved bashing in the media.

But claims from the fans out there said that blame wasn’t clear cut. Local Marseille ‘ultras’ were ambushing England shirt wearing fans in bars and restaurants – charging in fists and feet flying, tables and chairs overturning, bottles and glasses smashing, before legging it as the police arrived, ready to pile into the carnage and take the shell-shocked England fans to task for ‘hooliganism’ that, in many instances, they didn’t instigate. A great account of this can be read on the Irish Times – as an Irish journalist, Ken Early, was unfortunate enough to be caught up in one case of this, where sat in a peaceful bar amongst both French and English fans, carnage descended as local youths attacked.

But the locals taking exception to foreigners on their patch wasn’t the worst of it.

On Saturday the Russians came to town. And boy did they mean business.

Hooliganism is a serious sub culture in Russia – you only have to look on YouTube to see endless videos of brutal gang fights, involving arranged brawls, forest training camps and far-right ideology. They’re trained and very dangerous.

Back in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the English terrace lout was the poster boy of the hooligan movement. Feared and ‘respected’ by rivals they made football matches a no go area for most.

Those days are long gone now. Genuine English hooligans are on tight banning orders which sees them handing in passports and reporting to police stations in the run up to major tournaments. 

But even these hooligans are more beer brawlers than serious fighters. The Russian ‘fans’ that descended on Marseille on Saturday were terrifying. Muscle bound, MMA trained, with gum shields, gloves and face masks, they tore into the England supporters around Marseille’s Vieux Port.

The paunched, tattooed yobs of yesteryear, now in their 50’s – no doubt relishing the chance to relive their ‘prime’ – were no match for the organised gangs which picked off English fans in packs. Video footage of the fighting shows coordinated mobs of Russians beating England shirt wearing supporters to the ground then booting them in the head until, and sometimes after, they were unconscious.

The Hollywood romanticised versions of football hooliganism, where Frodo Baggins and his chums hold their own, abiding by the mantra ‘you don’t kick a man when he’s down’ and everyone generally laughing off a few post fight cuts and grazes was nothing to the reality. Drunken 20 somethings thinking chanting and chucking a few bottles was a great laugh, were suddenly fleeing in terror as trained, hardened fighters tore into them, eager to prove that they were now the hooligan top dogs.

A few months ago a group of my friends were seriously thinking about going to the Euros. Now I’m glad we didn’t.

The attacks were indiscriminate. Anyone wearing an England shirt was a target, with one chap getting knocked out, a black eye and his trainers, phone and wallet stolen. He was comparatively lucky – one 51-year-old Portsmouth fan was allegedly beaten unconscious with iron bars and is now fighting for his life in a coma.

Some of the footage was genuinely sickening.

Russia are due to host the World Cup in 2018. As one England supporter succinctly tweeted: “f**k that for a laugh”. 

The PR damage the headlines and footage have done for the tournament will be massive. The Russian reaction only enforcing it. Most Russian media either glossed over what happened, entirely blamed the English, or actually resorted to triumphalism, seeing Russian masculinity dominating English effeminacy – ‘the English are girls’ claimed one Russian hooligan, post-fight.

A Russian MP tweeted saying he thought ‘the boys’ should carry on fighting, as if they were merely scallywags having a good time. The country’s Sports Minister claimed nothing happened in the stadium, where England fans, including some women and children, were charged and attacked at the final whistle, nearly causing a stampede in their bid to escape. At one point the Minister even seemed to gesture to the hooligans on camera in encouragement from the pitch side.

Some suggest that the Russian authorities utilise these gangs to further underhand political aims when at home, with many including members of the military and the police. Official reaction to the scenes in Marseille does little to dispel this sentiment.

The fact that hardly any Russians (only two for pitch invading at the game) were arrested, despite effectively wearing a uniform with many sporting black t-shirts emblazoned with Russian writing and firm logos, makes it even worse. They’ll no doubt be free to rampage at the next game. A 16-year-old English boy was arrested for throwing a plastic bottle, whilst thugs kicking prone people in the head en masse somehow slipped through the net...

With the threat of Russia and England being expelled from the tournament now hanging over their heads, the countries’ reputations have been badly tarnished. 

‘Typical England’ say all and sundry. But it really wasn’t typical England. Yes, there were a good few morons scattered about who were no doubt well up for trouble, and more still happy to chant the songs of old, but many, many more were victims of chilling violence when all they really wanted was a few beers, a sing song and a good time.

They’re paying the price for a reputation forged in the past that’s no longer relevant. As Ken Early put it, the Russian hooligans are going to war with an English myth.

Russia in 2018? I think not.