Euro 2016: A day of madness in Marseille leaves black mark on European soccer
English and Russian fans clashed in Marseille over the weekend, leaving more than 30 people injured and at least four in a critical condition. While the fans incriminated should be dealt with harshly, Uefa and Fifa also have plenty to answer for. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
On the field, the 2016 European Championship has been off to a pretty good start. The football has been decent, there’s been little diving and since it’s a European tournament, we are exempt from any Bafana Bafana heartbreak.
Off it, though, things have been tense with matters reaching fever pitch during England and Russia’s clash in Marseille on Saturday night. Fans from both teams began arriving in the southern port city on Thursday and Friday, and right from the start, the hostility was palpable and eventually bubbled over following the 1-1 draw between the two sides.
About 300 Russian fans, reportedly armed with gum shields, fighting equipment and mixed martial arts gloves, wearing black T-shirts with Lokomotiv Moscow and CSKA Moscow branded on them, attacked the English fans inside the stadium.
The assault left 19 Britons in hospital, four in a critical condition. Among them was a 50-year-old with severe brain injuries after reportedly being attacked with an iron bar.
Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin referred to the Russian fans as being “extremely well trained”, telling a news conference: “These people (the Russians) were well prepared for ultra-rapid, ultra-violent action.”
But the Russian fans weren’t the only ones who caused a ruckus. Prior to the fixture, England supporters were reportedly heard chanting: “F*** off Europe, we’re all voting out” and “sit down if you hate the French” as officers fired tear gas in the southern port city before the match against Russia on Saturday. Some went as far as chanting: “ISIS, where are you?!”
This behaviour is a reminder that politics and sport simply cannot be divorced from each other. As the EU referendum looms with Brexit – a UK exit vote – leading a number of polls, it is only natural that some of those beliefs will spill over into the sporting discourse. Some of it might be considered slightly amusing under normal circumstances – like the English-French disdain – but nothing about these clashes was funny.
France is still reeling from terror attacks which left 130 people dead and while the country has promised heightened security during the tournament, the outbreak of these clashes does leave some unease.
More pertinently, though, it also raises serious questions for Uefa and Fifa both over their organisation and over the behaviour of one of their officials.
Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin and who was appointed to the new Fifa Council that replaced its discredited executive committee, at first denied that there was any trouble at all. A video also surfaced which appears to show Mutko celebrating on the pitch while these clashes were happening right in front of him.
Mutko backtracked over his claim that there was “no violence” during the fixture and that the images showing the clashes had been “exaggerated”, after Uefa announced a probe into the fighting. This is a pertinent issue as Russia is due to host the 2018 World Cup. There are serious questions over whether the country is in tune with the risks of hooliganism at such a tournament and whether they are doing enough to stamp out such incidents.
Igor Lebedev, a member of the Russian football union’s executive committee, even praised the actions of the Russain fans, Tweeting on Monday: “I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up! I don’t understand those politicians and officials who are criticising our fans.
“We should defend them, and then we can sort it out when they come home. What happened in Marseille and in other French towns is not the fault of fans, but about the inability of police to organise this kind of event properly.”
If this is the attitude of people in charge of sport in Russia, can fans really be assured of their safety when the World Cup heads there? It’s a question Uefa will have to seriously consider, among other things.
Uefa has to be questioned over its scheduling of the fixture. Is a late kick-off, with booze flowing freely all day, really the best time to schedule a fixture that was always going to be feisty?
England fans have a history of causing trouble in Marseille. At the 1998 World Cup in France, England played Tunisia in the port city and fans clashed outside of the stadium during the fixture. Organisers knew this, but were either confident that the security was tight enough, that the odious English football hooligans had been rooted out or, perhaps, Uefa was just so disconnected from reality that it refused to heed any of the warning signs.
Last week, in the lead-up to the match, a number of editorials warned that there was great cause for concern and that James Shayler, dubbed the “Pig of Marseille” and a notorious hooligan, boasted that he would return to the city and predicted further violence.
While the behaviour of both sets of fans is disgraceful and all incriminated should be dealt with in the harshest way possible, Uefa cannot be completely excluded from what went on in Marseille on the weekend. Their response to these incidents will be critical if they hope to maintain credibility while Fifa’s answer to Mutko’s tone-deaf responses will require stern leadership from Gianni Infantino. DM
Photo: Supporters clash in the stands during the UEFA EURO 2016 group B preliminary round match between England and Russia at Stade Velodrome in Marseille, France, 11 June 2016.