Blood on the streets: the charge of the hooligans at Euro 2016

Young, fit, muscular men with masks, gumshields and telescopic truncheons, the Russian “elite ultras” attacked not just with drunken gusto but with well-honed, premeditated viciousness. 

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The violence that has broken out in isolated flare-ups at this year’s Uefa European Championship in France began in an almost homely way. What is it about the English and shuttered French squares, pavement cafés and evening sunshine?

England’s footballers were in Marseilles on the opening weekend of the Euros, just as they were at the 1998 World Cup, which was won by France’s great unifying, multiracial team. Once again, with England back in town, there were the sights and sounds of a more belligerent cultural exchange: pink flesh and polo shirts, songs about German bombers, the crunch of flying plastic chairs. Bottles were hurled, arms spread, fight entreaties offered. Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street.

The initial response to this was a kind of weary shrug as, for two days, the carnival in Marseilles played out in familiar fashion. Two hundred or so Englishmen on a rowdy long weekend were photographed chucking bottles and occasionally being tear-gassed and truncheoned, while beyond the media and police cordon everyone else sloped about enjoying the Provençal sunshine. Plus ça change, plus c’est the same bleeding thing all over again.

But then the Russians came and life in the old port did feel very different, just as it feels slightly different across France as these Euros quiver and belch and struggle to contain a rather forgotten kind of fury.

Social media did a good job of relaying the acts of practised brutality that took place on the streets of Marseilles. I was there reporting on England’s 1-1 draw with Russia on the pitch. Off it, meanwhile, in the bars and side roads and on the promenades, our boys took a hell of a beating. By the end of Saturday night Marseilles had become a city in a state of nervous breakdown, a place of clanging sirens, broken glass and frazzled, frightened people.

At the end of the match, inside the stadium, Russian gangs had charged across the seats, causing a stampede that could have become a deadly crush. Uefa and the French police have been castigated for their hapless management of an obvious flashpoint.

How did this happen? And what does it mean? On a purely inter-hooligan level, the spike in violence in Marseilles is perhaps best explained by way of analogy with the film Galaxy Quest, in which the cast members of a Star Trek-style TV show are mistaken for real space pilots by watching aliens and are forced to take part in life-or-death galactic manoeuvres. This, in a sense, is what happened to England’s travelling regulars, who, outside a hard core of nasties, just aren’t proper hooligans any more.

To a degree, it was a case of cultural misunderstanding. The English still like drinking and fighting. But these are more lads who have a certain look and a style: they are knowing, ironic yobs. They sing the songs and do the poses and intimidate the baffled locals but they’re a kind of tribute act, like Japanese teenagers with Beatles haircuts. Theirs is a cultural memory: a tip of the hat to their dads and uncles.

Meanwhile, a group of actual psychopathic criminals from Russia’s febrile, premodern hooligan scene – the sort of nutcases who train in the woods and travel for hours to take part in organised fights – decided to take all of this at face value.

Young, fit, muscular men with masks, gumshields and telescopic truncheons, the Russian “elite ultras” attacked not just with drunken gusto but with well-honed, premeditated viciousness. They charged through the crowds, picking off stragglers and inflicting the maximum damage without mercy. A 51-year-old Englishman is reportedly still in a coma after being struck on the head with a small axe.

There have been echoes elsewhere. These tournaments have been sanitised in recent years – all fan zones and face paint, the emblems of a prosperous, frictionless Europe. Yet suddenly Germans and Ukrainians were fighting in Lille. Northern Ireland and Poland fans were attacked by local thugs in Nice. Beneath the Eiffel Tower, I watched, standing next to a crew of amused Croatians, as drunken Polish skinheads punched and kicked each other and anyone who came near.

Russia is perhaps a special case. Some have called the gangs in Marseilles “officially sanctioned” hooligans, which might just be a conspiracy theory too far. But violent, nationalistic groups attached to football clubs do exist and don’t seem to be a particular source of shame and anguish for Russia’s authorities.

The Russian news service Vesti produced some wildly gloating, adulatory copy about a heroic minority of Russians who had “repulsed an attack by several thousand English”. Other Russian media accused the English of “fleeing the battlefield”. This is a country that is already at war on two fronts – and it showed. The next World Cup is spread across ten Russian cities. Hmm. After you, old bean.

Elsewhere, it has been hard not to draw the same conclusion that many already have: France is stretched, with its security forces geared towards a terrorist threat. Everyday hooliganism has been left to bloom in the open spaces. Europe as a whole seems to be in a peculiar, low-level funk. People are anxious. Nationalism is on the rise. Staging an expanded, 24-team football tournament in the middle of it feels like stringing up the bunting, setting out cakes and trying to hold a street party just before an inner-city riot.

France will contemplate the next few weeks with some trepidation. Better weather, dry cities on match days and a tightening of segregation may calm things, although nobody wants to see a still possible knockout-round meeting of Russia and Ukraine, the Crimean Clásico.

For England on the pitch, things are reassuringly familiar, with a dream double of a team just good enough to raise hopes and a manager just bad enough to stamp them out: the perfect situation for those who like a little wistfulness, yearning and bruised hopes to go with the more tangible wounds of Marseilles. Some things, at least, never change.

Barney Ronay is senior sports writer for the Guardian

This article appears in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink