The official slogan for Euro 2016 is “Le Rendez-vous”. Perhaps it should be déjà vu. We were plunged back to the bad old days on Saturday night in Marseille.
Uefa, while opening disciplinary proceedings against the Russian football Union, must also take a long hard look at themselves.
Of course, people have to take personal responsibility. After all, no-one was forced to go the city’s Old Port area, a trouble hot spot, to drink all day. No-one was forced to bring rockets into the Stade Velodrome and then aim them at opposition supporters.
But Uefa, remarkably, seemed to prepare the way for the mayhem. Indeed, the authorities surely must stand accused of increasing the chances of it happening. They should surely be in the dock just as England and Russia are, with both football associations warned their team are at risk of expulsion from Euro 2016 if violence flares again.
The Uefa press team send out e-mails each morning featuring salient points from the previous day to those accredited for the tournament. These dispatches include a selection of that morning’s front pages from a variety of newspapers. Unsurprisingly, none chosen yesterday were those highlighting what had occurred in Marseille. The front page of La Provence, Marseille’s local paper, was certainly not re-produced, with its portentous headline: Une sombre sur Marseille (A shadow over Marseille).
Of course this wasn’t the message Uefa wanted to relay, particularly not in these early days of a tournament supposed to promote inclusiveness and respect for each other. These are noble aims. But Uefa are now reaping the bleak harvest of baffling decisions made long ago, from choice of venue to kick-off time.
Russia versus England was always a high risk fixture – perhaps the highest of all games in the opening group stage. Everyone knew that. Indeed, it was partly what drew many there. The potentially combustible clash brought reporters from far and wide – and not only sports reporters.
But the game should never have happened. Not in Marseille at least, a city that already has a legacy when it comes to rioting England fans. One well-travelled English sports writer described Saturday night as one of the two worst experiences he had known covering the England national side. Both of them happened to have occurred in Marseille, the other being 1998’s World Cup clash with Tunisia. But Uefa didn’t seem to recall these scenes of disorder 18 years ago.
Indeed, it was if they were almost inviting violence. They might as well have invested in a consignment of plastic chairs from Dobbies and arranged them on the harbour-side for visiting fans.
What they did do was ensure an explosive concoction of drunk, aggressive England fans and fearsome groups of Russian fans clad in black were mixing on a Saturday night, and for days before, in one place.
That this place was an intense port city like Marseille, where some locals don’t need an excuse to provoke a fight, and you have a potential hell-broth of ingredients. But that isn’t all. Adding extra spice to the recipe for a riot was a 9pm kick off. On a Saturday. Why not also stir in some additional factors, like neglecting to have adequate segregation separating two notorious sets of fans? There barely seemed to be any segregation at all.
Outside the stadium in the countdown to kick-off it seemed as if the trouble would be restricted to towards the city centre. Local drummers were applauded in the street while there was nothing more dangerous to anyone’s safety than the usual excessive drinking.
The riot police watched all of this warily. But when they were actually needed towards the end of the game, when the Russian fans charged at their English counterparts, they were posted missing. As we learned from last month’s Scottish Cup final, there isn’t a lot a thin line of stewards in bibs can do when faced with a mass of bodies, particularly when the intent is to threaten, and worse. This was clearly the aim of many Russian fans, with scarves covering their faces and hoods pulled on, on what was a warm night in Marseille.
It is not an exaggeration to say that it briefly felt like a Heysel stadium scenario was about to unfold as the English fans fled from their Russian attackers. Reporters were at the time adapting match reports that had changed so completely in the final seconds courtesy of Russia’s late equaliser. The tone of these pieces would change again as the extent of the disturbances to the right of the press box became clear.
After the match, the game begins as the saying goes. Except this was no game. It was chilling as English fans were pressed up against a wall, as was the case in Brussels in 1985 before the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, when 39 supporters perished. Mercifully, Stade Velodrome is a newly refurbished stadium, re-opened in 2014. The wall held firm as fans were pressed up against it. But if only superior construction work saved football from another tragedy then Uefa must surely accept there were drastic organisational failures, ones they must acknowledge were theirs.