Over the weekend, I headed to Marseille for the game.
Not because I am a hardened hooligan, or even a die hard England fan. I travelled because I love football.
My friend Greg and I bought tickets long before it was deemed that the match would be England versus Russia. Since the draw, both English and Russian friends decided to buy tickets and join us. It was certainly an eventful few days!
Greg, myself and my Palace supporting friend, Dom, arrived on the Friday night and happily drank in a bar with both English and Russians.
On Saturday, we did the tourist and cultural visits in the morning and headed to the main square around two o’clock after a spot of lunch. No sooner had we arrived, there was a small scuffle of around fifteen to twenty people involving the throwing of bottles, punches, chairs and chalk boards! This died down quickly as a small group of Russians made their way out of the square. I am not sure who started it but a mixture of English youths and fifty year old’s followed them, goading them as they went.
We decided to stay as the flash point happened a long way away where the rowdy English fans were and had been easy to avoid and observe. Throughout the afternoon, there were various flash points, seemingly involving the police, English rowdy crowds and presumably, French youths.
I suspect equal blame goes to all parties as while neither police or English were after a fight, both sides needed to calm down and learn from their repeated mistakes. If I had been repeatedly tear gassed for being rowdy in the town centre, I would have personally thought about a calmer way and place to drink. Likewise, the French police failed to grasp that the tactics they had been using for three days were resulting in retaliation rather than solving any problems. However, while all this mayhem carried on, us and thousands of other English fans sat in bars, drinking happily in the sun. We stayed well away from the singers that I would have joined in with if it was Palace as it was clear that was where the flash points were. The singers in the square were mainly chanting Deli Alli and Jamie Vardy songs. There was one rendition about German bombers, which was the only inappropriate song but there was some well-natured, two way banter with German fans before this.
As the clock turned five, this all changed. The restaurants were all quickly closed by the police (which was sensible as it slightly thinned out the up to four thousand strong crowd of English fans) before between 150 and 300 Russians stormed the square. Presumably thinking that the rowdy singers were English head cases. At first everyone stood and watched as we had with the scuffles all afternoon but within thirty seconds it became clear that this was not the same.
The Russians were brutally attacking all in their way at one end of the square and the useless French police were teargassing the other. The English, trapped in the middle, had to run into the side streets. Myself, and about fifteen other English of all ages, cowered in a restaurant and watched the Russians attack all who were not as lucky as us. Our door was ripped down and I really thought we were going to take a pasting but luckily they realised we were all terrified tourists. Most not wearing England shirts. All of us terrified non-fighters. Individuals outside were not given the same let off. Men were beaten repeatedly on the floor, trampled on and glassed unconscious.
A few English guys, braver than me, dared to run out and save one guy who had been left for dead by the mob, bringing him into the restaurant that we hid in.
By the time I came out, the French police were resuscitating one England fan in the square and we quickly moved away. Ironically, to meet my Russian friend who we had been waiting for, who had been having a meal with his girlfriend nearby and had been forced to run away.
We then drank happily by the ground. While the odd England fan gave my mate abuse for wearing his red and blue CSKA shirt (the reason he is a Palace fan) most English gave him good banter.
Outside the ground was manic with a lack of organisation and sign posts, coupled with the police firing off seemingly random canisters of tear gas, along with an enormous water cannon. As the father next to me told his eight year old son, ‘do not worry, some people are hot and the police are cooling them down.’
Inside the ground, there was minimal sign posting and information, leading to more confusion. Eventually, we found out seats (bought from UEFA – not England – long before we knew who was playing) and were surrounded by Russians. My Russian mate had tickets in their FA designated end and Dom was in with the English.
Although me and my one remaining friend were originally scared, we soon began to mix with the Russians around us and enjoy the game together as we posed for photos with each other. When England scored, we were able to celebrate without any trouble. It was literally just us two in the whole block. Some people around us even shook our hand. They were great football fans. Like us. There for a beer and a laugh. We would not have celebrated if England had scored early.
Just before the Russia equaliser, two flares were let off. One seemingly a firework. Regardless of any other dangers, it was a clear message. Security here is awful. Additionally, and much more worryingly, just after the firework and flare, a large bang went off. I have never heard anything like it before. However, nothing else seemed to happen. We feared the worst. If it was not a flare, what was it?! Had there been an explosion outside? Fear from everyone was heightened. Then Russia scored and we enjoyed the banter with those around us.
At the end of the game, we saw a wall of Russians charge over to the left. The sheer nature and organisation of this made it clear that, like the attack on the square, it was pre-planned.
Post match, we simply went to a bar near the stadium and drank there. It was calm. However, an incredible layer of green shattered glass covered the entire floor of Marseille town centre the following morning as fights had clearly gone on through the night.
In general, I agree with reports that England fans need to cut out the arrogant singing and anti social behaviour that is misinterpreted by foreign fans and police. However, the two main Russian attacks were pre-planned and on people that were not even at the ‘rowdy’ stage of England supporting. We were sat down, not singing, drinking.
I have been to over six hundred games in my life, including all ninety-two league grounds in England, Palace all over the place, watching England and others and at the World Cup. I have never been scared at football before but I was genuinely terrified on Saturday.
The trouble caused by the English was mindless and embarrassing. However, it was avoidable by drinking in sensible places and not behaving in a rowdy way as we often do at home. Unfortunately, while singing, drinking and dancing around Covent Garden was great fun before the FA Cup Final, doing it abroad makes you a clear target. Not just to police but to local youths and hooligans.
Yet, where all England fans need to be careful, especially in Lens and Lille this week, is to be mindful that there is at least one group of vicious, brutal Russians on the prowl, who from what I saw, do not care who you are, how old you are, or whether you want to fight.
I went to Brazil for the party and France for the sun, football and beer. Will I go to Russia in 2018? Absolutely not! A small minority of their fans, who were otherwise great, left me with no appeal to go.
To make matters worse, our flight home on Sunday was cancelled and there was not another direct one until next Friday. Still, it was not all bad. I ended up having Monday off work and a day in Madrid where I had an eight hour stop over!
Finally, enough of this England nonsense. The fixtures are out on Wednesday and we can begin to heal the wounds of the cup final. Bring on Premier League season number four.
Let us make it a record breaker.