Andy Mitten’s Euro 2016 diary: Jingoism, ultras and a bit of Erasure in the melting pot of Marseille
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 1 is below.
MARSEILLE // The TGV train from Paris zipped into Marseille’s brilliant white urban sprawl under azure skies. As it passed the tower blocks on the fringes, two England fans from Wolverhampton in England’s Midlands surveyed the vista. In case any of the other passengers were in doubt as to their identity, they’d stuck a Wolverhampton Wanderers/England sticker as part of a union flag on the train window.
“Benidorm,” opined one in a thick Black Country accent. “Towers like Benidorm.”
His travelling partner agreed.
“Looks hot,” he added. “African heat. Different from Paris. Drier.”
These men in their early 20s soon left the train and walked along the platform towards the high engine shed of Marseille St Charles. A member of the English Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) handed the scores of England fans a fanzine containing useful information. Behind them three French police officers weighed up the foreign arrivals entering their city.
“Please, sir, can I see your passport,” said a policeman to a bare chested England fan drinking from a can. “You cannot wear no shirt here,” he added in perfect English.
Through the terminal, where the giant staircase leading up to the station offers a splendid panorama of France’s third biggest city, police officers offered directions in English and posed for photos with fans. An Arab bar owner put the British union flag outside his establishment to welcome visitors. Friday afternoon was hot and sunny in this Mediterranean conurbation of 1.8 million.
By the nearby old port, English and Russian helpers dispensed advice.
More Euro 2016
• Full coverage: Visit The National’s dedicated Euro 2016 microsite
• Complete guide: Previews, fixtures, predictions and more
“I’ve been on the security visits with British police and the FA,” explained Kevin Miles, a veteran of the FSF. “We look at what the city has planned, but also try to influence police behaviour with fans, especially in the day or two before the game. The biggest single factor in how things will turn out is how the police react.
“You’ll always get a minority of people who don’t behave, but the police response, especially if graduated, can be effective. The British police are for the most part friendly and deal with situations with common sense. They don’t need to respond instantly with tear gas as that can escalate the situation.”
The Russian fan helpers speak perfect English.
“It’s very expensive for Russian people to come here because the rouble is weak,” opined one helper. “But there will still be 12,000 Russian supporters for the England game. They are very good supporters.”
There had been incidents of trouble in the Old Port on Thursday night between England fans and local ultras and youths after 70 of the latter confronted England fans. The police quickly dispensed tear gas and the problem was dispersed.
*** VIDEO: Euro 2016 fans descend on Marseille ***
By 6pm on Friday, there was more tension around the old port, with a regular sound of sirens. The English fans outside waterfront bars were working through their full jingoistic repertoire, singing songs about Germany and the war.
It went on and on, men in their early 20s wearing German Adidas training shoes named after the great European cities in countries that many English voters would prefer to cut free from in the forthcoming EU referendum.
One fan had an inflatable spitfire plane. Locals watched on bemused until the police moved them back. A bottle was thrown; tear gas was again used by the police. The tension ebbed and flowed, but it was only in one small area, where the pasty-faced Anglo-Saxon fans became zoo exhibits.
Around the other two sides of the port and elsewhere in Marseille, a vast majority of England fans saw none of the disorder which began to fill social media feeds. Instead they enjoyed the warmth of the sun and of their Marseillais hosts.
Security was tight. A line of 17 police vans waited by the quayside by giant super yachts flying the British red ensign. Soldiers holding assault rifles patrolled in fours. Families walked among stalls selling art and sugared peanuts. The restaurants were packed with fans watching France come from behind to beat Romania 2-1. When the winner was scored by West Ham’s Dimitri Payet, some English fans sang songs celebrating Payet and the yachts sounded their horns.
Marseille is a city of racial, cultural and economic contrasts and the mood was changeable. A group of Marseille ultras marched along the port which the invading Nazis has once given 20,000 inhabitants 24 hours to leave before razing most of it. Men in black trainers, shorts and hooded tops, they looked regimented, organised and looking for a fight.
One stated that there was unfinished business with the English from a three-day street battle in the same area during the 1998 World Cup. They talked about protecting their home city from these northern invaders, but really they were just looking to justify their planned violence. One man joined up with them – then returned – his T-shirt slightly ripped as he rubbed his face.
“A good fight,” he said.
“Who with?” I asked.
“Just a little argument over a cheeseburger,” he replied with a sardonic smile.
Some Marseille ultras surprisingly wanted to talk about English football culture, the Stone Roses and the Hacienda club in Manchester. Others just craved violence.
The Russians, who have hooligans problems of their own, were fewer in number than the English.
As Friday became Saturday, a hundred pumped up men waited in a side street behind the old port. Plain-clothed, their only identification was the word ‘police’ written on orange armbands. They were ready to be called into action, but the sheer number of their colleagues means that trouble is contained in Marseille.
In another contrast, a group of England fans in a bar began singing A Little Respect by Erasure. The soft lyrics countered the aggression on the faces of young Arab men loitering by the old port.
I try to discover, A little something to make me sweeter, Oh baby, refrain from breaking my heart, I’m so in love with you
It sounded beautiful. It continued.
Soul, I hear you calling. Oh baby, please give a little respect to me.
A little more of that from the minorities spoiling for a fight on all sides and Marseille, where England play Russia Friday night as both sides open their European championship campaign, would be a far happier place.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport