A weekend in France with England fans at the Euros

Two now have jail terms, but are they all that bad?


Don’t send me home, please don’t send me home,
I just don’t want to go to work,
I want to stay here,
Sniff all gear,
Please don’t take me home.

The chant has become a favourite of England fans across France during Euro 2016. And for the reported half a million in the country throughout the tournament, it couldn’t be more apt. UEFA have threatened supporters that England, and Russia, will be dramatically expelled from the European Championships if violence continues.

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A sea of England fans before the Russia game, at a fan zone in Lille

England fans have scuffled with police since Thursday, before the tournament started. This gradually got worse, culminating in six being charged for violence, with one ageing just 16. Two have since been jailed, one of them is 20. Fans threw bottles and clashed with local hooligans. Phil McNulty, the BBC’s chief football writer, wrote: “In the steamy, humid environment of this port city in the south of France, with alcohol flowing freely in searing temperatures and demonstrations of aggression from both sets of fans, all the ingredients were in place for events that unfolded in the Vieux-Port de Marseille.”

During the game, Russians let off a firework directed at the English, and eventually broke through security barriers and clambered to beat up their rivals. Stewards lost control, and well organised packs of hooligans caused panic. French prosecutors have said groups of “well trained Russian hooligans” are mainly responsible, but they evaded arrest. Reports say Brits are fighting for their lives in hospital after the violence, both in the streets and in the stands. It’s a dark echo of the 1998 World Cup, where England fans rioted for three days in the southern city. Elsewhere, the situation was different, but even in Lille, 1,000 km away, the tension was palpable.

We were based in the northern city for two nights, travelling to Lens for the Albania Switzerland game and then back to the fan zone in Lille for the Wales and England matches. The travel system seemed unprepared to cope with the large swathes of fans travelling to games. Queues took longer than they should have done and there were no extra trains laid on to handle the influx.

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Flares have been let off in almost every game and in the fan zones. Questions have arisen over how robust security could really be, if flares are able to get through security. Security does feel more beefed up – there are hundreds of gendarme everywhere, barriers funnelling you into the correct entrances, body pat downs for everyone coming into the ground and bags had to be left at drop off points.

Flares are alien to the English game, and represent a chaotic side to European football to many fans. It’s the same with police measures. For British police to deploy officers with riot shields, use tear gas or fire water canons, the situation would have to be fairly dire. But in Europe, it’s more common for police to use these measures to disperse crowds and restore order. There’s a school of thought especially among the 500,000 or so English fans in France right now, who think this iron fist approach far from improves the situation, but makes it more likely for things to kick off.

But there’s a constant sense of being on edge. The game against Russia kicked off at 9pm local time, and by 8.15pm the fan zone was populated by England fans and no one else. During the opening game, fans from almost every country competing in the tournament had packed the area next to Lille’s main shopping centre to the brim. Queues for the bar lasted over 20 minutes. Saturday was a completely different story.

England celebrate Dier's free kick

England celebrate Dier’s free kick

Once the build up started, so did the chanting. These aren’t people looking to cause trouble. Speaking to individuals, they’re here for a holiday that consists of a lot of drinking and watching a lot of football. It’s not a crime, yet most would not think highly of people who chose to go to France to support their team. They don’t want to go home, and most sing the above chant with “drink all the beer”. This is an escapist paradise for them. They’re a mix of young and old, from a range of jobs and social classes. This isn’t, as it’s been billed, a horde of working class yobs taking advantage of the short and cheap travel to cause chaos.

By the 50th minute mark everyone’s shirt was off, including one who wrote “GAZZA” in board marker on the back. When Eric Dier scored in the 75th minute, there wasn’t a plastic pint glass still in hand. That was the only blood I saw, when a flying cup caught a stocky 6″2 supporter with a short back and sides in the eyebrow, cutting him open.

The sour taste came from the select few who would target individual supporters, either from Wales or Ukraine. Two Welsh fans lingered after their win a few hours earlier, but came under a barrage of abuse from a few sunken eyed English. The toilets were a minutes walk, so some decided to piss on each other. It was harmless but when one gormless bloke wearing the garish turquoise goalkeeper kit slipped trying to kick his pint glass in the air and landed on the wet floor, and slipped again when he tried to regain his footing into more pissy water, you felt a bit sick. It sounds like a normal Friday night in some towns, with fans so drunk they couldn’t order in Burger King and had to be sat down outside by two bouncers.

The ugliest moment came when five Ukrainian fans arrived, in the city for their group game with Germany – which also culminated in violence between fans. One fan, dressed in the uniform of shorts, retro England shirt, stained with beer and sick, pushed one Ukrainian and threw his pint at another. Luckily they walked off, but it could have easily turned. It’s this behaviour, which can escalate an already steamy situation to a full blown fight.

Dejected supporters after the game

Dejected supporters after the game

The French were accommodating to an extent, but we were refused taxis and not let into clubs simply for being English. In the centre of Lille on Saturday, as English fans drank at Les 3 Brasseurs in the Place de le Gare, gendarme stood steely faced clutching riot shields in a long line on the other side of the road. They’ll have a far tougher time, no doubt, on Thursday when England play Wales in the city. The fan zone has a capacity of 25,000 – a rumoured 100,000 English supporters will descend on the city for the game. Captain Wayne Rooney has pleaded for fans without tickets to not travel.

Only when we got back did we realise the enormity of the trouble elsewhere. I spoke to Sam Farley, a writer who was in Marseilles for the 1-1 draw with Russia. He said: “Walking around the city you couldn’t shake the feeling that you were under attack. You were constantly on edge, waiting to walk around a corner into a wall of Russian ultras or walk into the mist of teargas. Before and after the game we hardly spoke of the game, it was all about making sure that we were safe.”

The majority of fans will remain safe and vigilant and stay out of trouble, whether Rooney and Hodgson’s words will help is up for debate. But there’s no denying that the actions of a few, as always, affect the many. Lessons will be learnt and forgotten before another competition with such an influx of English fans happens again, but the focus is taken away from the football and, sadly, no one will remember the competition for its ability to bring nationalities together – only for driving them further apart.