As this year’s Euro 2016 football championships draw to a close, I thought now would be a good time to offer some reflections on a theme that has apparently put a stain on events in France – hooliganism. The predominant offenders were seemingly English, Russian and French fans, and the ‘Three Lions’ for their part were threatened with all out exclusion. Such action proved unnecessary of course as England were dumped out in the last 16 by Iceland, lest we forget.
As this year’s Euro 2016 football championships draw to a close, I thought now would be a good time to offer some reflections on a theme that has apparently put a stain on events in France – hooliganism. The predominant offenders were seemingly English, Russian and French fan cohorts, and the ‘Three Lions’ for their part were threatened with all out exclusion. Such action proved unnecessary of course as England were dumped out in the last 16 by losing to Iceland, lest we forget.
I was keen to gain a first-hand account of the goings on in France on 15th June, when I travelled to the Franco Flemish city of Lille to watch Russia – (home of 150 highly trained aggressors out to cause as much carnage as possible), verses Slovakia. As well as these two sets of fans, I was also told to expect a strong English contingent, whose team were playing Wales in nearby Lens the following day. It seemed like a recipe for a cake made out of violence, strife and thuggery.
I woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed early on Wednesday morning, and set off for Kings Cross, where my Eurostar carriage awaited me. I met up with my travelling companion and we completed the formalities of check in. Things once on-board were very civilised. Yes, there were a good number of English football fans, but the chatter was excitable and fun – more tactics and diamond formations rather than Sambuca chasers and fantasies of Russian pounding. We were briefly blessed with the presence of a British police officer – but the conversation remained smiley and convivial and she was soon on her way. It was good to know there was a security presence on board should things take a turn for ‘le macabre.’
In a relative blink of an eye (1hr 20 mins) we were in Lille, and upon disembarking we were greeted by what felt like our own guard of honour, complete with assault rifles the size of small children and all the associated garb. Yet despite this somewhat unorthodox welcome, Lille on first impressions certainly did not feel like a city on lockdown. Quite the opposite in fact.
We made our way to ‘Place du Général-de-Gaulle’, an excellent spot to enjoy the eclectic yet coherent architecture and an excellent chocolatey beverage and an equally excellent cheese burger. Yes, there were numerous clutches of gendarmes, and yes there was out of tune singing (mostly alas from the English) but little more than that. Indeed the Lillois appeared to be taking the whole thing in their stride, going about their daily lives as normal, and (in contrast to previous experiences it has to be said) going out of their way to be friendly to ‘le English.’
Full on chocolate and ‘du boeuf’ we made our way to the stadium Pierre du Mauroy –which was a little way out from the city centre (as is the norm with many modern stadia these days). The journey via driverless metro was a masterclass of efficiency (not something you’d normally associate with ‘le French’), whilst fans from various European nations were mingling with one another like one happy supra federalist family. Had Jean Claude Juncker been there he would have probably cried.
The game itself was a 2-1 win to Slovakia, and alas no grisly hostility greeted us here either. The Russians did let off a solitary non exploding red flare mind you. The unrelenting efficiency continued as we made our way back to the city centre – and when settled in a charming street corner bar reports soon emerged of a ‘scuffle’ involving English fans and tear gas. Our curiosity piqued, we arrived at the scene of the crime mere minutes later to be greeted by the aftermath – lots of empty plastic beer containers in a pile. As seemed the custom, everyone seemed very relaxed about the whole thing – including the many nearby gendarmes on their mobile phones playing ‘le candy crush’ – probably. The Lille public too, rather than boarding up their maison’s and cowering under tables seemed quite entertained, if a little bemused by the whole thing.
As night fell more news of scuffling emerged. By this point I was tucked up in bed and well gone. Yet having reviewed the video footage the next morning it seemed little more serious than what had gone on earlier in the day.
With that in mind, I reflected that perhaps the media had blown the whole hooliganism thing out of all proportion. It’s easy to look at the reports on TV and social media and think anarchy and wanton violence rules the day at Euro 2016. Conversely, my experience of Lille shows that nothing could be further from the truth.