Following events in Marseille ahead of, and after, England's opening Euro 2016 game against Russia on Saturday the FSF has issued the following statement:
In Marseille, England fans were subjected to numerous pre-planned, organised and brutal attacks on several occasions in the days preceding the game against Russia, in the stadium itself, and after the match.
Dozens of England fans have been injured, some seriously. Many more, including women and children, have been affected by tear gas or water cannons deployed by the police. It has meant for many a very unpleasant beginning to what should be a thoroughly enjoyable carnival of football.
With a few honourable exceptions, the knee-jerk first response of many in the media and in politics has been once again to cast blame on us, lazily or to suit their own agenda falling back on out-of-date stereotypes about English hooligans abroad.
Whatever the history – and there has been plenty in years gone by which earned us a negative reputation – this time, those accusations are wide of the mark.
We’re not claiming that all England supporters are angels. While the big majority of us come and party in the real spirit of football, making new friends as we go, there are still a number among us who drink maybe more than is wise, or who sing songs that aren’t to everyone’s taste. But what we can say with confidence is that to the best of our knowledge, none of the many violent incidents that took place in Marseille during our time there were initiated by England fans.
We have witnessed groups coming together – sometimes Russian hooligans, sometimes Marseille ultras, sometimes simply gangs of local youths – with the deliberate aim of attacking England fans eating and drinking in and outside bars and restaurants or making our way to the game. Some of them have been tooled up, some of them have had their faces masked, but all of them have been intent on starting trouble and initiating violence.
The attacks have often been brutal, and in that context, we can hardly condemn those England fans who were left with little option but to defend themselves and in some cases their families. But of course those are often the images that end up on TV and are used out of context to demonise England fans. The media talk of “clashes” between fans, as if there were two groups determined to confront each other. That wasn’t what happened here.
These were cowardly attacks on groups that included families, on innocent people minding their own business and trying to enjoy the tournament. That kind of behaviour and its perpetrators have no place in football, and it’s with these people that the blame for the Marseille events clearly belongs.
That these attacks were allowed to happen at all raises crucial questions about the role of the French police. Surely the first responsibility of a police force in a country hosting a tournament is to make sure that those who have come to enjoy it can do so in safety, protected of course as far as possible from terrorism, but also from attacks by local thugs or visiting hooligans?
And yet we have witnessed these groups come together to prepare their assaults on crowds of fans while the police watch and let it happen. If they can see a potential problem developing before their eyes, why do they do nothing to stop them getting near their target?
Time after time, the first intervention of the French police has been to use tear gas and then water cannons. It’s in the nature of tear gas that it doesn’t discriminate between perpetrators and passers-by, between attackers and victims, and it often lands when the villains of the piece have already run off – leaving those who have just been attacked or in the vicinity with eyes stinging and streaming, and struggling to breathe.
The other consequence of this police approach is that while it may look dramatic and effective, with people running for cover, it actually leaves the hooligans free to fight again another day. None of them are arrested, they get to slope off and re-group ready for their next assault, or to travel to their next venue.
All the trouble on the streets of Marseille was then followed by the appalling scenes inside the ground at the end of the game: illegal pyrotechnics, a huge banger, political and far-right flags, and then finally the frontal assault on England fans in the adjacent blocks – a neutral sector containing also French fans and many family groups. All of it entirely unacceptable.
At Euro 2000, the England team were threatened with exclusion from the tournament because of the behaviour of our fans – and yet the problems we admittedly did generate then were small beer compared to what has unfolded with the Russian hooligans over the last few days.
We opposed the expulsion of England from Euro 2000 on the grounds that to expel the team would be to punish the majority of fans as much, and arguably even more, that the guilty minority – and we would argue the same principle applies to any threat to expel Russia from the tournament now. Any sanction should isolate and punish the perpetrators; the majority of fans are part of the solution, not the problem.
One significant difference however is that after Euro 2000 and that expulsion threat, there was a concerted effort in England, involving everyone across the game including government, police, the FA and fans’ organisations, to address the problems that we had. This resulted among other things in new laws and the creation of football banning orders, and it worked: the result has been, over time, a huge improvement in the behaviour and reputation of England fans, which has seen us rightly praised on more than one occasion for our contribution to a tournament’s atmosphere.
If Russia wants to be taken seriously as a football nation, competing in and indeed even hosting major international tournaments, then surely there has to be some serious action taken within Russia to stop their thug element carrying out these cowardly violent attacks? As things stand now, the prospect of a World Cup in Russia looks less appealing than ever.
Maybe that’s for the future. But now, with immediate effect, we need the French authorities to ensure that England fans are able to enjoy Euro 2016 in the carnival mood at which we excel, safe from aggression and encouraged to party.