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Andy Mitten’s Euro 2016 diary: Dark mood lingers over beautiful port city of Marseille

The National's European football correspondent Andy Mitten is taking the alternative route around France for Euro 2016. He was in Marseille on Saturday and witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly during England's match with Russia.
Most of the England fans appeared to be peaceable people out to enjoy football and a trip to France, our columnist writes. Lads like the group from Cannock in England’s Midland, supporters of Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion. They’d paid £500 (Dh2,618) to travel to Marseille for a two-day trip via Amsterdam. Andy Mitten / The National
Most of the England fans appeared to be peaceable people out to enjoy football and a trip to France, our columnist writes. Lads like the group from Cannock in England’s Midland, supporters of Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion. They’d paid £500 (Dh2,618) to travel to Marseille for a two-day trip via Amsterdam. Andy Mitten / The National

Andy Mitten, The National’s European football correspondent, is taking the alternative route around France for Euro 2016. While most journalists will be packing French press boxes, Andy will follow the fans and the buzz to bring you an alternative take on the tournament. He’ll tell his story in a daily diary – Part 2 is below.

MARSEILLE // “What are they doing?” asks Gary Neville as he looks out to the calm Mediterranean on Saturday morning from a Marseille suburb near the England hotel. Ahead, a dozen elderly females in wetsuits appear to be doing yoga in the sea.

Neville, England’s assistant manager, is enjoying an early morning stroll with David Watson, England’s goalkeeping coach, close to the fanzone near Marseille’s stunning Velodrome stadium. The former Manchester United and England defender stops for a bottle of water and an ice cream on the beach. He’s looking forward to the day ahead.

“They’re brilliant, you know,” he says of England’s huge travelling support. “You walk out and see this massive bank of white. Even in Brazil, where things didn’t go to plan, they carried on supporting us. The players couldn’t believe it – knocked out of the World Cup and they were getting applauded for their efforts.”

Most England fans – and there were at least 45,000 with tickets in the 60,000 crowd in Marseille – are decent people who want to have a good time. There are a minority who don’t. They’re not the organised hooligan firms of yore intent on violence, but a massive collective drawn from fans of hundreds of English football teams.

More Euro 2016

Mitten’s Day 1 diary entry: Jingoism, ultras and a bit of Erasure in the melting pot of Marseille

Full coverage: Visit The National’s dedicated Euro 2016 microsite

Complete guide: Previews, fixtures, predictions and more

You see the flags from Plymouth and Carlisle, from Slough Town and Huddersfield Town. They were putting their flags up opposite McDonald’s in the Old Port, scene of trouble on the previous two nights. Flags from Shrewsbury and Leeds.

Hundreds were there in the noon sun. Hundreds became thousands.

“Rule, Britannia!” they sang about Britain’s former nautical prowess on the high seas, as yachts were moored in front. “Britannia rules the waves, Britons never, ever, ever, shall be slaves.” The French police, poised carefully in the side streets, watched on carefully. As the afternoon wore on, the mood darkened.

Most of the England fans appeared to be peaceable people out to enjoy football and a trip to France. Lads like the group from Cannock in England’s Midlands, supporters of Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion. They’d paid £500 (Dh2,618) to travel to Marseille for a two-day trip via Amsterdam.

Most of the Russian fans were there for a good time too, but within their fan base is a hardcore group of hooligans who enjoy fighting, who actively seek confrontation.

At 4pm, a group of them surged up a narrow side street and attacked the English in the Old Port, scattering them. The Russians were well organised, well built and keen to fight. The British would fight back when provoked. And they were.

Bottles and chairs were thrown, the sound of sirens and smashing glass filled the air, charges went back and forth. Tear gas was unleashed by police, scattering crowds to reveal broken bottles and several bloodied heads.

An English man was stretchered into an ambulance, his condition serious. A sea breeze pushed the gas from the port up the narrow streets towards Marseille’s best shopping streets. Fans tried to stay ahead of the cloud and ran up the gentle incline in panic.

An aggressive chant from a block of Russian hooligans marching around the streets added to the menace. French shoppers panicked outside the city’s finest designer stores as England fans, coughing and spluttering from inhaling tear gas, mixed with them. It was awful.

With a dry mouth and stinging eyes from the gas that had been released 100 metres away, this writer walked for 50 minutes towards the stadium. A CRS police water cannon headed in the opposite direction.

Plain clothed police outside Marseille’s station jumped into cars, but in the bars and restaurants along the route, there was calm as fans from England and Russia watched the Switzerland game. There was no hostility, though it was awkward when French television cut to the unedifying scenes by the old port.

Around the daring white sweeping roof of Europe’s most stunning redeveloped stadium, fans walked the vast perimeter to get to the correct entrance. Signage was poor, both outside and inside the stadium. Arrows pointed to toilets which didn’t exist. Blocks of seats remained unoccupied, despite the game being a sell out.

There were three checks before fans could get into the stadium. The first, a cursory glance at tickets, the second a search – where flags were confiscated or owners were told to put them in a cabin. A third check, after fans were in an area where Uefa sponsors could get their message to fans, saw the barcode on the tickets, which cost an average of €100 (Dh413), scanned.

The tribunes – the stands at side of the pitch – were vast, with 125 rows of seating spread over three tiers from back to front. In a Russian section, the fans were friendly to this Englishman. Male and female, young and old.

Many English began to arrive closer to kick-off, late and stumbling. They booed the Russian national anthem loudly. The Russians booed Wayne Rooney when his name was announced, but they did not boo God Save The Queen.

The game was entertaining. England took the lead after 73 minutes when Eric Dier smashed a free-kick high into the Russian goal. The England fans who filled three-quarters of stadium, celebrated.

“It’s coming home, football’s coming home,” they sang. Neville was right, it was hugely impressive, this vast sea of white. England, home of the world’s richest football league, the perennial underachievers in international competition, were ahead.

A Russian fan tried to charge onto the pitch from behind the goal. He got as far as the advertising hoardings before being carried out. From the same section fireworks and a firecracker were let off.

England’s lead didn’t last. Russia equalised two minutes from the end of normal time and the final whistle was blown.

In the end divided between 12,000 Russian fans and English, Russian hooligans surged through the flimsy segregation and attacked some retreating England fans. There are hundreds of police outside the stadiums and in the city, few inside. It meant more violence in Marseille, more concern for Uefa, for the French authorities, for England, and for Russia.

A dark ending to a day Marseille would rather forget.

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Updated: June 12, 2016 04:00 AM

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