bloody saturday

"It's an English Town!" – 72 Hours Amid the Mayhem in Marseille

VICE Sports was in Marseille last weekend to witness the violent clashes between football fans, hooligans, and local police. This is what we saw.

by Loïs Elziere
15 June 2016, 12:59pm

35 injured, with one in a critical condition – that was the toll from the disorder surrounding the England-Russia match in Marseille last Saturday. In the space of three days, the city saw the best and worst of football: the party and the war. Fans from both sides left the port city on Monday. Some are proud, but spirits are low among the majority. Others will still stay for months to come – in a cell at the Baumettes prison in the south of the city.

"Truly, truly sorry"

On Monday afternoon, Alexander Booth is stood accused in the dock for the first time in his life. The young English chef is a long way from home in the High Court of Marseille. Last weekend, he was celebrating his 20th birthday when he was arrested among the melee of English and Russian fans, local people and riot police, who clashed in and around the game. He faces the judge wearing his England shirt. But there is no longer the look of an enthusiastic football fan on his face, just disappointment. Accompanied by a translator, he does not seem to understand proceedings, only that it isn't good news. The local prosecutor, Brice Robin, had set the tone that morning. He publicly asked his deputy to call for prison sentences for all those arrested in the street fighting between fans. They will be next up in line behind Alexander. He seems like a nice guy caught up in the middle of it all. He admits to throwing a plastic cup and sticking two fingers up when the fighting broke out on Saturday. But, above all, he was there to party with his father, who is also in the room. "I would like to say sorry to the police and to the people and city of Marseille. Truly, truly sorry... I was in the wrong place at the wrong time." And with at least two grams of alcohol in his blood, the prosecutor notes.

The sentence is announced but his father does not understood. Distraught, Alexander babbles, "Two months..." His father slumps down, "What?! Two months?!" He points his finger as if giving an order: "Hang in there! I'll come and get you..." Then, in tears, he tries to make his way through the barricade of journalists at the courtroom exit. He is outraged, and his lawyer "extremely disappointed". His son will likely serve his sentence at Baumettes, and will then be banned from travelling to France and its overseas territories for two years.

England fans drink and sing outside the British pubs in Vieux-Port.

The "fight zone" in Marseille

The Queen Victoria, O'Malley's, Temple and Out Back: four pubs stood side by side in the old port area of Marseille. It was there that England fans set up shop last Thursday night. An area marked by flags of St George, with names of cities or towns printed on them by their owners. Norwich is written on 30-year-old England fan Dan's flag. He is putting it up next to 20 or so others on the quay opposite the Queen Victoria.

It's Friday afternoon, and the English Zone starts to fill up with fans from the four pubs. "It's an English town!" yells Dan. According to police, around 50,000 England fans have made the trip and are now meandering around in what is a pleasant atmosphere for the moment. "We're calm, there's no provocation, but as they drink, things can easily escalate, and it's considered to be like a fight zone here," one officer tells me.

The first police unit arrives in Vieux-Port to deal with English fans.

There's a party atmosphere, even if last night a minor clash left the media casting their glare upon England supporters. Harry has come from Leicester. He explains the altercation while ordering his pint at the bar in O'Malley's. On his phone there's an article condemning the behaviour of England fans with a photo of him. "My girlfriend called me in a panic when she saw the article. She didn't understand why I was caught up in this shit. I'm not a fighter. It was guys from here who came looking to stir shit up, we were just defending ourselves." Anthony Heraud, the manager of the pub, was doing the rounds and told me: "I have the CCTV tapes that show it's the English who are being attacked." The prefecture talks to him at 4pm that afternoon about the possibility of an administrative closure. "They want to send everyone to the fan zone but the English feel at home here."

So much so that they're in the street that runs along the quay in front of the pub. They dance and sing in homage to the Three Lions. A rendition of "Vardy's on Fire!" – to the tune of "Freed from Desire" – is in full swing, but the England fans are also blocking traffic. The riot police intervene. Nicely to begin with, but then with teargas; it breaks things up effectively. Within a minute, the street is deserted and the four pubs have been abandoned. But the English are still nearby, and they are annoyed. We find them a bit further along the quay, in the Vieux-Port area, in a stand-off with police. Around 10 Russians then arrive, enticed by the commotion, and put black t-shirts bearing the name of Lokomotiv Moscow over their faces. They put themselves between riot police and the English, keen to confront both parties. A few arrests later, and calm is restored without too much harm.

Police try to disperse English fans using tear gas.

"French gays, English gays"

We walk past four Russians in shorts and flip-flops who have come down to the beach. One of them is putting stickers up with a photo of a furious looking bloke who is missing a tooth. He gives me one while smiling. No doubt about it, it's him on the sticker. There's a sort of menace about him as he sticks the photos up every 10 metres. He explains it to me as best he can, "French gays, English gays, tomorrow you see!"

And on the following day, when the game is played, we did see. Vieux-Port was out of control.

The sticker plasterered across town by one Russian supporter.

It's early afternoon, and an English man in his fifties has been beaten up in a square in the city centre, the Cours Estienne d'Orves. With his life hanging in the balance, he is given CPR, and was in a stable state at the time of writing.

Around 6pm, the Opéra area becomes a battleground with people chasing after each other, and violent thefts taking place. The locals against the English, the Russians against everyone, with the riot police in the middle of it all. Bottles of beer are flying everywhere and causing damage. They break the front window of the Garnier cafe on the Rue de Suffren; many are injured.

Russian fans wearing their Lokomotiv Moscow t-shirts.

Who started this? Who is attacking who? Nobody really knows. Most of the English will say they only acted in retaliation. On one side of them are the openly violent Russian hooligans, depicted by prosecutor Brice Robin as a group of "100 to 150 people [...] who came to fight [...] they acted very quickly and that explains the difficulties in identifying and arresting them." (None have been arrested at the time of writing).

We aren't sure about what motivated the local youths on the other side of the England fans. Some people are talking about revenge for the fighting with the English in 1998. But it's simpler than that for one young man who we met in the Belsunce area on Monday. "You have to show them where we are! I tore an England top off one of their fans, it's a trophy. He wouldn't give it to me nicely, so now it's all ripped..."

An English fan is arrested by the police.

In total, 34 people are injured throughout the Saturday afternoon, with one in a critical condition, three seriously injured, and another who has a knife wound. 590 members of the emergency services and more than a thousand police officers have been called into action.

It's only the build-up to kick-off that allows calm to be restored on the streets of Marseille.

By the Vélodrome, England fans are overexcited. We see bloody shirts and bandaged heads but they're singing loudly. They continue to ramp the volume up inside the stadium where the outnumbered Russians respond boldly. Despite a clash in the south stand as the full-time whistle sounds, there are no consequences and there are no more major incidents that evening. The start of a scrap in Vieux-Port is quickly put to bed by tear gas an hour after the game.

The match mirrored the action on the streets, with England dominating only to be surprised by a Russians ambush. In the end, it was another sad sight to complete a depressing weekend.

Translated into English by Nick Roberts