Getting Tear-gassed for the first time.
It had all been going so well. Having spent the morning interviewing members of the Icelandic squad in the picturesque idyll of Annecy, I now found my eyes running from tear gas as fans and police clashed in sight of Stade Velodrome. The air was full of the sound of glass shattering, the hiss of gas canisters, and intoxicated renditions of ‘No Surrender’. Six feet to my left an England football fan was staring down French riot police and Russian Ultras armed only with a half eaten leg of cured meat, and an 80s cliche in an Italia ’90 shirt called on us all to ‘hold the line!’ for Queen and country.
My colleague and I had only been in France for a few hours on Thursday when we’d got a call that there was two tickets for England’s opener against Russia waiting for us in Marseille. As we drove along the raised carriageways through the Old Port area of the city, there was little sign of the violence that was now into its third day. We parked to the West of the stadium and picked up our tickets with little problem. As we looked for food near the stadium the atmosphere seemed jubilant but good tempered. Sunburnt England fans outnumbered their Russian counterparts but mingled happily. The Gendarmerie were out in force but seemed relaxed in the hours before the game, even posing for pictures with supporters.
Having found somewhere to eat and watch the second half of Wales’ win over Slovakia in the earlier Group B game, we walked towards the stadium and down to the Rond-Point du Prado. England fans were massed at the meeting of the three streets, chanting and singing, watched on by a growing police presence. Armoured vans with water cannons sat at two exits of the roundabout. From a side street a group dressed in black tried to rush the England fans, and with that the police let the tear gas loose. The England supporters were pushed back into what became a pen as riot police formed lines to block off the roads. A small group of Russian fans, faces covered in scarves broke through and attacked a couple of England fans that had been separated from the group, forcing him into a doorway and kicking him to the ground. One attacker grabbed a glass bottle from the floor and joined the melee. Drunken fans tripped as they ran for safety, crashing onto the glass covered roads. One older man, with a St. Georges cross inked onto his back lay semi-conscious, facedown, his shoulder jutting at an unnatural angle, clearly dislocated. Another had blood streaming from his eyebrow as he staggered back, the real blood accompanying the fake bandage that completed his Terry Butcher fancy dress. A small minority of the England support saw this as their moment to shine, they stood arms outstretched, eyes bulging with stimulants, roaring the old standards of the 1980s hooligan songbook. A guy so intoxicated that he’d been sat on the floor gnawing a leg of serrano ham when we’d arrived was now on the front lines brandishing it like a club, protected from violence by the phalanx of Gendarmerie between him and the Russian contingent.
As an Arsenal fan born in the early 90s the closest I’d been to football violence was being sharing a carriage on the Northern Line with some sulking Greek Ultras after a reserves game against Olympiakos U19s. Now I’d found myself caught in a news report from 1998. Chaos reigned. Fans who had thought that they were being forced towards the stadium now thought the police were intentionally penning them in, trying to kettle them. As always happens, it was not only the fringes of England’s supporters who’d been caught up in the violence. Parents covered their children’s eyes from the gas that was carried along the wind, while a French father tried to manoeuvre a pram through the hordes. Plastic furniture sailed through the air towards the Russian fans which brought another round of tear gas canisters but the confrontation was beginning to fizzle out as the Russian fans were driven away. Finally relocating my colleague, we got through the line of police as fans started to disperse. Shaken England fans walked quickly along the streets, looking for the sanctuary of Stade Velodrome. After rounding a corner there was little sign of the trouble we’d left behind. A few England supporters sat drinking on the street and posing for selfies with barmaids. Those who had walked with us were scarred from what had unfolded. In front of a man who looked like he’d seen his share of action before, shepherded his two sons to safety. The youngest, by his side with ‘Harry Kane 9' on his back, was inconsolable. The tears rolling down his cheeks had been induced by fear rather than gas as his father tried to calm him. ‘The Russians are coming back aren’t they Dad? They won’t just do it once and go..’ he pleaded, his view of football changed for ever.