Thursday, June 16, 2016

Fans and thugs - Football fandom

One of our greatest reasons for excitement in living in
Marseille this summer is that France is hosting the Euro Cup. We knew that several of the games would even be played here in Marseille. We lived in Europe in 2006, and though the World Cup was in Germany, we saw the first-hand excitement of football fever both in the Netherlands and France. This was going to be fun.

Or so we thought. Our opinions of living in a city hosting these games changed dramatically after the Russia v. England game on Saturday the 11th. The violence was so bad that it made international news - tear gas, water cannons, riot sticks, chairs and bottles were thrown, and Russian "ultras" and drunken English fans engaged in bloody fights. One bar in the Vieux Port area was set on fire. Yes, on fire.

Photo Credit: Evening Standard
(I would have shown you the video footage of this event, but it's basically just a long string of bleeped-out expletives.) 

This was the week when my brother and sister-in-law were visiting us, and I was eager to show them the sights in Marseille, and naively, thought it would be fun to witness the "football fever."  Turns out, it was a very unfortunate weekend to visit Marseille. We spent the early part of the day in the Panier district, which was relatively quiet. Though we saw many bare-chested English fans, drinking copiously and growing pink in the sun, we didn't see any direct signs of rowdiness or violence. (We soon learned that we didn't need to hear the British speak in order to figure out their nationality . They were easily-identifiable - shirtless, beer in hand.) But when we walked back toward the Vieux Port, intending to walk up to Notre Dame de la Garde, we heard the shouting and sirens and saw the tear gas. The atmosphere changed quickly, as locals and innocent tourists tried to find away out.

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Tear gas at Vieux Port - notice the flying chair and bottles through the haze. 
Photo credit: The Guardian

An injured supporter at the port of Marseille.
An injured football fan at Vieux Port - Photo credit: Eurosport

We went one direction, only to be shooed away by a frantic woman advising us to go by another route. Then we took the most circuitous route possible back to the apartment, and tried to reassess the situation from there. We were torn - I felt as though I didn't want the drunken hooligans to "win" by forcing me to stay in inside.  But even from our balcony, it looked as though there was no safe route. Honestly, despite this city's reputation for violence, this is the only time I've been truly scared to leave my apartment. 

So sadly, we stayed inside on Joe and Brooke's last night in Marseille. Even there, things were not quiet. Nearly 100 drunken English fans stood outside the bar across the street, loudly chanting while watching the earlier game. Only when they left for the stadium did things begin to calm down. Then the violence shifted to the stadium. The atmosphere of the game itself was bad enough, but even worse afterwards, when the Russians scaled the barrier to attack those on the English side.

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                                                            Picture Credit: Reuters

Needless to say,  this night did not endear me to either the English or the Russians. And I'm not going to choose sides. Certainly the Russian "ultras" are no joke, and have caused countless injuries in many football matches. But all of the English press seemed to report that the British fans were innocent bystanders, who were victims of unprovoked attacks by Russian 'hooligans' and 'thugs', and sometimes targeted by the police. (One headline read: "English disease not driven by Marseille drunks, but by sober, professional hooligans."- I guess by staying sober the Russians weren't playing fair?) 

"Yeah, I know I have an open head wound, but I'm not done with my beer yet."
Picture credit: Sam Cunningham

The British news sources consistently referred to the English as "fans" while the Russians were called "thugs." They added comments about the police force, who in their view, were both incompetent and unnecessarily brutal. Eric was following twitter during the game, where he got into a little debate with some right-wing British politician, who blamed the violence in Marseille on the "thug-like" atmosphere in the city itself, and the 40% Muslim population. (Ok, he's off by about 15%, but who's counting? Certainly not him.) Sorry dude, regardless of the severity of your Islamophobia, you don't get to pin this one on the Muslims. 

But when reading some outside sources, I got a more balanced view. While the British press offhandedly mentioned that the English had a few pints, the outside press remarked that they had been "drinking heavily all day" and thus provoked the police. They were also also chanting "F*** you Europe, we're all voting out." (In regards to the upcoming EU referendum.) After some anti-Irish and anti-German songs, they also sang: "Sit down if you hate the French" and "ISIS, ISIS, where are you?" At a later game in Lille, they chided the police, chanting: "Where were you in Marseille?"  These are not innocent bystanders. 

The French have taken some wise measures to avoid future violence, and not only in Marseille. I saw this yesterday at the grocery store:

Notice anything peculiar about this sign?  Maybe not, if you haven't been living in France for the last several months. It's only in English. Nothing - and I mean nothing - is only in English here. For a country in which countless individuals are fluent in English, they seem fiercely determined not to have the French culture undermined by intrusions from the English. Clearly, this sign is targeted at a particular audience, and it isn't the French. 

This regulation was a wise choice. Whereas on Saturday we heard a steady chorus of breaking bottles intermixed with drunken shouting, we heard none of that last night when France played Albania.  And this morning, I didn't find the streets filled with broken bottles and other trash, nor the stench of urine we witnessed on Sunday morning. But I think that the reduced consumption of alcohol is only part of the explanation.  France played Albania last night, and for most of the match, it was fairly close. I thought that the number of French fans would dwarf the Albanians, but I was surprised to see so many red-shirted fans, many wearing the traditional 'queleshe'-style hat. But even more surprising was the evident spirit of good will and camaraderie between the French and the Albanians. They were watching the earlier game together at bars and cafes. They were interacting with each other, singing songs with each other, posing for pictures with each other. The difference from the atmosphere on Saturday night was shocking. 

Image result for atmosphere at the france v. albania game 2016
                                                           Photo credit: The Guardian

I had to go near the stadium last night to pick up my daughter from a friend's house. Initially, I was going to try to avoid the Metro stop near the stadium in order to dodge the craziness. But it turns out the buses weren't running, so I had to take the Metro to the Prado stop, and walk from there. I admit - I was nervous about this, but now I'm so glad I got to witness it up close. At one point, I was in the middle of the subway car, with Albanian fans on one side and French fans on the other. I felt my gut clench. But to my surprise, they started singing their team chants - sometimes taking turns, sometimes singing together. Everyone was smiling, laughing, and in good spirits. At one point, a French fan with a small megaphone handed it over to an Albanian fan to take a turn. It was remarkable. 
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Photo credit: Associated Press

After I picked up Beatrice, she repeatedly remarked on how fans from the two different teams were talking together, smiling together, drinking together. At one point, we saw a face-painter with a French flag on her cheek, painting a red and black eagle on the face of an Albanian fan. She was stunned.  She asked: "They're from different sides, why are they so friendly to each other?" Because this is good sportsmanship my dear, this is how it's done. 

                                                Here's an image from last Friday night of                                       
                                      Joe, Brooke and Beatrice cheering on the home team!

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