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We Spent 72 Hours with English and Russian Hooligans in Marseille

In just three days, the Mediterranean city saw the best and worst of what football has to offer.

by Loïs Elziere
16 June 2016, 2:05pm

In front of one of Marseille's pubs, invaded by English supporters. All photos by the author.

This article originally appeared on VICE France

The match between England and Russia that took place in Marseille last Saturday had quite an outcome: 35 people injured, one critically. In three days, the Mediterranean city saw the best and worst of what football has to offer – a party followed by a battle. By now, most English and Russian fans have left France but a couple will be staying for a few more months. In Baumettes prison.

One of them is Alexander Booth, who found himself in Marseille's regional courtroom this past Monday. The English chef was celebrating his 20th birthday last weekend when he was arrested during a clash between the English, the Russians, locals and police.

Booth arrived at his trial wearing an England football shirt. In spite of his translator's best efforts, he didn't seem to understand the arguments against him – but he did seem to know that it doesn't look good for him. He admitted that he threw a plastic cup and raised his middle finger during the clashes on Saturday. But he also claimed that he was there primarily to celebrate his birthday with his father, Chris, who was also present. "I apologise to the people of Marseille and the police," Alexander said. "I'm truly, truly sorry... I was in the wrong place at the wrong time." The prosecutor added that Booth had twice the legal amount of alcohol in his bloodstream.

When his sentence is read out, his father didn't understand what it meant. "Two months," stammered Alexander. Chris Booth almost collapsed but quickly recovered himself and said: "Be strong, I'll come and get you." In tears, he tried to make his way out of the courtroom through the crowd of journalists. Their lawyer commented that the family is "extremely disappointed with the verdict." Alexander Booth will most likely serve his sentence in Marseilles' Baumettes prison and will subsequently be banned from entering French territory for two years.

Nine more people take their turn in the courtroom – five Englishmen, one Austrian and three Frenchmen. They're all convicted, with sentences ranging from three months to one year.

Drunk English fans sing songs in front of one of the four British pubs on the Old Port.

There are four pubs located side by side on Marseille's Old Port: the Queen Victoria, O'Malley's, Temple and Out Back. This is where the English settle on Thursday, June 9th. A territory marked out by England flags, each stating the city or neighbourhood the supporters hail from. Dan, a 30-year-old England supporter, has come with a St. George's Cross that reads "Norwich". He's hung it alongside 20 other England flags on the quay opposite the Queen Victoria pub.

When I visit the English fans the next day, in the afternoon, I see that the place some started calling "the English Zone" has started to spread further than the four pubs. "It's an English city," Dan shouts at me. According to the police, about 50,000 England supporters have made the trip here, but the atmosphere is still pretty relaxed. "We're zen. There's no provocation. But seeing as they're drinking it can quickly turn sour. This area is considered a fight zone," one policeman tells me.

A group of police intervenes in the Old Port to stop the advance of English supporters.

Even if the atmosphere is pretty relaxed, the media have had their eye on the English since Thursday night, when a fight erupted in one of the bars. Harry has come down from Leicester and explains the altercation while ordering a pint at the bar in O'Malley's. On his smartphone, he reads an article denouncing the behaviour of the English supporters, illustrated with a photo of himself. "My girlfriend rang me in a panic when she saw the article. She couldn't understand what I was doing with that crowd – I'm not a hooligan. There were some local guys who came looking to stir up some shit," he says. Anthony Heraud, the manager of the pub, interjects to confirm this. "I have CCTV cameras showing that the English were attacked." Heraud explains that the city is planning to close the area off from fans: "They want to send everyone to the fan-zone but the English feel at home here."

They certainly seem comfortable. While singing and dancing to "Three Lions" and "Vardy's on Fire" to the tune of "Freed from Desire", the English spread over the road in front of the pubs. It's festive, but it's also stopping traffic. The police get involved – gently at first, but then using tear gas. It's effective – within a minute the road is deserted, while the four pubs seem like hastily abandoned saloons.

Tear gas being thrown at the English fans forcing them to leave.

But the English remain in the general area, annoyed. They move a little further up the quay on the Old Port, in a tense face-off with the police. About a dozen Russians – likely attracted by the noise – put their black Lokomotiv Moscow T-shirts over their faces and take their position between the police and the English fans, ready to fight with both groups. But after some arrests, the calm returns without too much damage.

Meanwhile, I meet four Russians in shorts and flip-flops on their way to the beach. One of them is carrying stickers of an angry-looking guy who's missing a tooth. He hands me a sticker and smiles broadly at me – his missing tooth proves it's his own face on the sticker. About every 30 feet he finds something to stick his face on. "French gays, English gays: tomorrow you see!" he explains to me.

The sticker in question, bearing the image of the Russian fan.

I did see: on the day of the match, the area around the Old Port is out of control. In the early afternoon, an English fan in his fifties is beaten in the Cours d'Estienne d'Orves to within an inch of his life. He is rushed to hospital with a heart attack, where he is currently in a critical but stable condition.

Around 6PM, the Opéra district turns into a battle ground. The locals fight the English, the Russians fight everyone and the police are in the middle of it all. Beer bottles are flying around, breaking the window of the Garnier Café on Rue de Suff. It injures a lot of people.

The Russian supporters in their Lokomotiv Moscow T-shirts.

Who started it? Who attacked who? No one really knows. Most of the English say they were retaliating. On one side were the Russians, who were characterised by regional prosecutor Brice Robin as "a group of 100 to 150 people [...] came to fight [...] They acted fast, which explains the difficulty the police is facing in identifying and arresting them." In fact, no Russian hooligan was arrested at that point. That changed last Tuesday, when 43 Russian hooligans were arrested in the South-East of France. Twenty of them will be deported, three will face a judge.

On the other side, was a group of young guys from Marseille whose motives still remain unclear. According to some, the whole thing was about revenge for clashes with English supporters dating back to 1998. One local guy I met in the Belsunce district said: "We had to show them who we were! I ripped the shirt off one English guy, it's a trophy. He didn't give it to me when I asked, so I ripped it off of him."

The arrest of an England supporter by the police.

All in all, 35 people were wounded that afternoon – one of them critically, three seriously, while one man was also stabbed. It took 590 firemen along with thousands of policemen from all sections of the force to calm things down.

What helps bring the temporary calm back to the streets of Marseille, is the fact that the match is finally about to start. At the entrance of the Velodrome, excited English fans with blood stains and bandaged heads sing loudly. After the final whistle, there's a clash in the south section of the stadium, and about an hour after the match, another one in the Old Port again – this one is quickly diffused with tear gas.

The football match on Saturday, the 11th of June, was a bit of a metaphor for the match on the streets: the English dominated, though at some point they were also ambushed by the Russians. In the end, the whole spectacle was rather sad.

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