England fans head to Marseille: "Whatever happened in '98 stays in '98"

Marseille Ultras at Stade Velodrome

Billy Grant and Dave Lane will be following England throughout Euro 2016 - here they discuss England fans' return to Marseille for the first time since 1998...

England fans head to the sunshine of Marseille for the start of their Euro 2016 campaign with everybody desperately hoping that a handful of skirmishes in the Vieux Port – where allegedly local Ultras attacked England football fans - is no repeat of the trouble that marred their last visit to the French port during the 1998 World Cup.

Violence reigned for days across the city as it was plunged into what has been described as ‘civil war’ by some locals.

In addition to nervousness of England’s return to Marseille, there are concerns about the French authorities’ ability to police the tournament with the potential of notorious Russian Ultras added to an already volatile mix.

Marseille fans are quick to point out that for the majority of domestic fixtures this season, away fans have had their movements severely restricted with bans on visiting fans commonplace.

"As supporters, the problems we face at the moment are related to the police, we can’t follow our teams to away matches, they ban travelling fans for security reasons," one fan told us.

"We’ve known for years that we are hosting the Euros and there are going to be away fans here, the English, Russians, Ukrainians, Polish," he added.  "When all these people come over, what are the police going to do? They can’t even manage 500 fans for one French league match.

"The French authorities, the French police, they are incompetent"

Having travelled around the globe with England for many years, there is always a degree of hype and scaremongering before any big tournaments start.

The media are always itching to regurgitate yesterday’s bad news headlines and spin them onto today.

But in Marseille, looking back at how edgy the situation could be, it does seem timely to urge travelling supporters to treat the town and the locals with respect.

"If England fans come to Marseille, drink with the locals, laugh with the locals, eat with the locals and dance with the locals, everybody will have a great time.

"If fans come to Marseille and throw glasses around and burn flags then it could be civil war again!"

They were the words of warning from one Marseille Ultra – a fan with a profound respect and knowledge of the English game and of supporter culture.

The unique ethnic mix of Marseille is another factor that local fans were quick to point out – with large Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian communities living in the heart of the city centre.

"We have many different communities, and it is one of the poorest cities in Europe. But there is a real pride to live in Marseille and everybody comes together at times of trouble."

One thing is for sure - it’s not a place for the feint hearted if faced with trouble and the people of Marseille aren’t shy when it comes to defending their honour.

A UK police team will be travelling to Marseille in an attempt to nip any potential trouble in the bud with their attentions focussed on the bars around Vieux Port and its surrounding streets and squares.

But it is their French counterparts who are under scrutiny and their ability to handle a pressure cooker atmosphere - with a threat of repeated crowd disorder and terrorist attacks - is being called into serious question despite more than 200 CCTV cameras being placed strategically around town.

The amazing reaction from England supporters following the Paris terror attacks last November - when the whole of Wembley Stadium stood and sang the French anthem in solidarity and respect of the victims – (as can be seen in the video above) has not gone unnoticed by French fans. Maybe this has been the wake-up call needed for folk who, until now, still fail to recognise that there is a more positive side to international rivalries.

Football has moved on since those dark days on the beaches of Southern France.

Hopefully, after this summer is done, the football world will finally be able to bury the ghost of Marseille ’98.

Billy Grant & Dave Lane

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