Ken Early: Russians go to war with an English myth

England supporters are the inheritors of a reputation they no longer deserve

On Friday evening I was sitting at the Havana Cafe on the south quays of Marseille's Old Port watching France play Romania in the opening match of Euro 2016. I had chosen this place not because it had a special atmosphere or because it seemed likely to be the sort of spot where exciting things might happen, but because it was the only place where I'd spotted a free stool with a good view of the TV.

The people sitting watching the match in the crowded outdoor section were mainly English but there were also groups of French – men and women, ranging in age between about 20 and 50.

The English sitting immediately behind me were Leicester City fans. They talked about the trouble in the town and whose fault it was. "It's not even us," one said. Who is it then, I wondered. "Loads of Marseille, all dressed in black." Hit-and- run attacks by these locals were apparently causing much of the trouble.

I was sceptical of the role of these black-clad “Marseille”. I had my own ideas of how the trouble had started, based on what I had seen at the Old Port on Thursday night and earlier on Friday evening.


It seemed to me as though the violence was the predictable outcome of the natural friction between large numbers of drunken, boisterous England fans, twitchy French riot police and local bar owners who were happy to sell bottled beer all night. It was as inevitable in its own way as a chemical reaction. Put the right ingredients together, it goes bang.

Those English who were part of the singing mob would protest their innocence. All they were doing was drinking, singing, taking their shirts off, throwing their beer in the air, jumping up and down . . . just having a laugh. What’s the problem with that? What else do you do when you go away for a football match?

As long as these England fans fail to recognise that when they do this they are effectively raising a collective middle finger to the city, they will continue to get cracked over the head by foreign riot squads without understanding why.

There is a failure to appreciate how their behaviour looks from the other point of view. Stupid drunken bant-ics – throwing stuff, climbing up on things, making fun of passers-by – might not constitute outright aggression, but it puts the police on edge.

And triumphalist arrogance – raising your arms wide and chanting “F**k off Europe” or “Marseille is Ours” – is a challenge laid down to the local hard men. When you behave like this, you don’t have to go looking for trouble. It comes looking for you.

So I sat thinking idly along these lines, while wondering why Didier Deschamps apparently preferred Olivier Giroud to Anthony Martial, when behind me there was a sudden, startling eruption of chaos.

I spun around to see drinks and chairs flying, people sprawling amidst overturned tables, and glass bottles whizzing through the air. My first instinct was to avoid flying glass, so I cowered back against the bar. The middle-aged Frenchman who had been sitting at my table with his wife tried to shield her as a mass of people jostled together at the side of what had been the street terrace. Punches flailed amidst the melee.

Thirty seconds later the riot police came crowding onto the scene, but the fighting was already over. The assailants had vanished. One England fan was already pressing a shirt to the bleeding head of another who had been struck behind the ear by a bottle.

Piecing together what had happened with others who were there, it seemed that some local hoods had come running out of the adjacent side street, laid waste to the unsuspecting bar in a hail of bottles and chairs, and retreated back up the same street as quickly as they had come.

I tweeted some pictures and some messages saying that at the Havana Cafe at least, English fans had been the victims rather than the aggressors.

This turned out to be a point that plenty of people in England wanted to see made. Most of the English media coverage was portraying the English supporters as shameful villainous scum, so any evidence that they were not the only miscreants in Marseille was seized upon gratefully.

Some constituencies in England were keener to seize upon it than others. I woke the next morning to discover that I had 2,000 new followers and the "Who To Follow" algorithm was recommending hard-right mouthpieces like Katie Hopkins and Milo Yiannopoulos.

By then I thought I had developed a reasonably complete idea of the mechanics of the disorder. The English crowd creates a trouble magnet, attracting the troublesome elements in the city, and the circle of chaos is complete when the aggressive police wade in with batons and tear gas.

But that afternoon a new dynamic came into play in the form of a couple of hundred terrifying Russian hooligans.

If the English “hooliganism” could be described as passive – taking up a static position and inviting trouble – the Russian form was active – going out and making it. They roamed the streets looking for stragglers to beat up. Over the course of the afternoon videos proliferated of Russians kicking and stamping on heads.

This is perhaps what English hooliganism would look like if the most violent English hooligans had not been weeded out by banning orders. The Russians were representing a flourishing hooligan culture on which the Russian authorities either cannot or will not crack down.

Of particular note were the photos of musclebound Russians posing proudly in the Old Port displaying their captured English flags, much as their grandfathers once piled the Nazi divisional standards before Stalin at the victory parades in Red Square. At full-time in the Velodrome the Russians first chased the English out of their section, then clambered up over the seats to rip down the flags their frightened foes had left behind. The Russians probably did not even realise how farcical this trophy-hunt really was.

The captured pieces of cloth did not represent the pride of some feared English “firm”. They’re usually a little memento of a trip taken by four or five friends, who were probably just hoping someone back home noticed their banner hanging up in the stadium and paused the TV to take a picture.

The Russians were at war with the myth of the English hooligan, an archetype established in the 1970s and 80s and since largely vanished from the earth, or at least barred from travelling abroad. The same goes, more or less, for the riot police and the local toughs, and maybe even for the English press and public, embarrassed that people are talking again about the English Disease.

The fans following England now continue to find plenty of obnoxious ways to behave, but they are the inheritors of a reputation they no longer deserve. History is a nightmare from which the England fans are trying to awake.