While “fan” violence in Europe in 2016 is, sadly, by no means out of the ordinary, the kinds of sustained and coordinated attacks we’ve seen at such a high-profile international event like Euro 2016 these past few days is pretty shocking. We have Englishmen taunting local fans, locals orchestrating quick hit-and-runs on Englishmen at the bars they’ve congregated at, trained Russian thugs ruthlessly pummeling the English in days-long attacks, French riot police attempting to staunch the violence through more violence, and UEFA threatening to kick teams out of the tournament if fans don’t be have. The Euros have only just started and it’s already a full-blown shitshow.
The most significant clashes this past week involved attacks against England fans in Marseille. That city was the host of England’s tournament-opening match against Russia, and both Russian and French groups have targeted the English at the venues where they’ve congregated. We touched on some of the violence this weekend, but it’s worth recapping it now that the worst of what happened there is presumably over.
Take this video, which some Englishmen made showing what they claim was an unprovoked attack on English fans at a bar:
English fans showing up somewhere en masse, French hooligans flying in and attacking them by throwing punches and bottles and glasses and chairs, and then dispersing before the cops get there, has been a common refrain. Once police arrive and the instigators have fled, angry English fans seem to feel like the police have treated them like aggressors rather than victims, which then starts up new skirmishes between fans and the cops.
It’s not been all locals beating up on Englishmen, though. Russians too have gotten in on the act against the traveling Brits. The opening few days of the tournament before and after the England-Russia game were littered with English-Russian clashes, and those led to some of the ugliest scenes.
Not only did English and Russian fans scrap around town, the two groups even got into a mass brawl in the stadium when Russian fans charged English ones after the game:
The French authorities’ main method of combating the violence has been through their police presence around the host cities, but they’ve also requested that the host cities implement a ban on the sale and consumption of all alcohol on the day before and the day of each match. Alcohol has presumably been a large factor in the attacks since many have occurred at or near local bars.
For their part, UEFA has threatened disciplinary actions against the English and Russian soccer federations—a threat that has included the possibility of either or both national team getting booted from the tournament if the hooligans don’t settle down. UEFA has also formally opened an investigation into Russian fans for their behavior in the stands during the match.
The English FA has said all the right things about being disgusted with the violence and their desire to see it all done away with, but the response from the Russians has been different. As the Guardian reports, one member of the Russian federation spoke very highly of his compatriots’ literal fighting spirit:
“I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting,” Igor Lebedev wrote on Twitter. “Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!”
Lebedev, who sits on the executive committee of the Russian football union, is an MP from the nationalist Liberal Democratic party and the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament.
“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,” Lebedev wrote in a series of tweets.
“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.”
Lebedev expounded on his support for Russian fighters in another interview:
“I personally think that if Mutko was with the fans on the stands and not an official, he would also go and fight the English fans since they were the ones who started it,” Lebedev said.
“In nine out of 10 cases, football fans go to games to fight, and that’s normal. The lads defended the honour of their country and did not let English fans desecrate our motherland. We should forgive and understand our fans.”
Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s Minister of Sport, attended the match in person. His interpretation of events was a little different than everyone else’s, though:
“There was no clash... That’s being exaggerated, in fact everything is fine here,” Mutko told R-Sport. “When the match ended, there was no barrier between the fans. The British were upset, of course, but it all quickly dissolved.
“Such matches should be organised properly. It is necessary to separate the fans [at the stadium].
“The bad thing is that there were firecrackers and flares,” he said. “There were no nets. One must understand these things.”
There’s this, too:
And according to the Marseille prosecutor who’s overseen the violence in his city, the Russian ultras who have cause the bulk of the injury aren’t just your average angry soccer fan. Rather, he contends that they were a mob of about 150 trained fighters who were organized and intent on causing havoc. As you can see, attitudes about hooligan culture vary widely from country to country.
The motivation behind all the violence, and why it seems centered around the English, is a more complex puzzle. The most cogent analysis, as offered by the Irish Times’ Ken Early who was on the scene for one impromptu dust up, points to a number of contributing factors. One is English fans’ general boisterousness. Brits often turn up in numbers at bars near where their team will be playing, get loaded, and sing loud and often crass songs about the superiority of the England team and, crucially, how bad their opponents are. Songs insulting locals are staples in the English fans’ repertoire, and that plus the volume of their taunts makes them easy targets for the ire of locals or rivals who want to pick a fight.
This isn’t the only thing at play though, Early contends. There is also England’s long history with violent hooliganism, which was basically synonymous with English soccer during hooliganisms’ heyday back in the 70s and 80s. While England has done much to eliminate fan violence—and especially the kind of group-organized violence that is most dangerous—from the sport domestically, the image of them as the exemplars of hooliganism persists.
Because hooligan culture is still so closely tied with England, that country’s peak hooligan scene is often the archetype other ultras groups that have popped up elsewhere in Europe use to model their own scenes around. To a certain extent, Russian and Ukrainian and Italian ultras that exist today are themselves the continuation of a lineage the old English hooligans started a few decades ago.
Thus, as Early argues, these French and Russian hooligans who went after Englishmen weren’t just going after a group of doughy, drunk, oft-shirtless, pasty-skinned guys engaging in at times mean-spirited but largely harmless fun; somewhere in their minds, the hooligans were challenging the hard men from movies like Green Street, and testing themselves against the very people who made hooliganism a thing.
It’s an incredibly strange situation all around. For the benefit of the vast majority of people present who just want to have fun and watch some soccer, let’s hope the worst of the violence has passed. Though with more fights breaking out in Lille, this time between Germany and Ukrainian fans yesterday, and rumors that the Russian hooligans responsible for much of the fighting in Marseille have made their way to Lille for more of the old ultra-violence, it’s hard to be optimistic.