How England Hibsed it in Marseille – and I met a few Russians...

How England Hibsed it in Marseille – and I met a few Russians...

by Iain McGill
article from Wednesday 15, June, 2016

I SURE PICKED a good weekend to take a trip to Marseille...

I've always fancied Marseille. That team they had back in the day, when I was younger I always picked them to play with in Sensible Soccer. Barthez. Sauzée. Desailly. Völler. Boli. Angloma. Pelé. Deschamps. Boksic. Papin. They were a joy to watch, and played in a city that clearly embraced football.

I have tickets for eight games of these finals, tightly packed in dates and in Paris, Lyon and St.Ettiene, but the chance offer of a 9th ticket for England vs Russia in Marseille and was too much for me to resist, so a short notice weekend in Marseille it was.

Preparing to go I devoured Marseille on Netflix - a House of Cards type drama starring Gérard Depardieu as the coke-snorting mayor of Marseille, and Stéphane Caillard as his daughter. I kept my eyes peeled for her over the course of the weekend, keen to offer her a job in my campaign team for the inevitable next election, but alas she clearly had too much sense to be swanning around the old port running the gauntlet of Russian hooligans, trigger happy French police, aging sunburnt England fans and the odd confused tourist with bad timing... Nextflix was only part of the watching though. Unavoidable on Thursday’s news was the first reports of clashes between rival groups of fans and the police.

Friday’s Ryanair flight meant stopping off at Stansted. Edinburgh to Stansted in late afternoon being a sedate, sober affair, then swap to the Marseille flight and the party was well and truly underway. A bar full of England/Welsh/Northern Irish and Belgian fans? Tick. Police checking our passports to see if we're on any banned lists? Tick. No beer left on the flight 10mins after take off? Tick. No mixers left 20mins after take off? Tick. Drinking straight spirits with my new best friends - French on the left, English on the right 30mins after take off? Tick.

As the plane moved as one towards the buses into the city and everybody got online we caught Payet scoring his wonderful goal, and updates from friends already there about more violent outbreaks around town. Lots of footage flying about the internet, but nothing to dampen any high spirits.

It was near midnight by the time we got down to the old port, the atmosphere was fun, different nationalities mixing easily, but everyone had stories about the violence during the day. Lots of wild rumours flying around though, and a ruckus broke out down the street and Chinese whispers writ large about what/who had happened. Friday night was fun though, a few hours drinking outside into the wee small hours and gentle warm-up for the main event.

On Friday morning I had big plans to get across to Chateau d'If - the island were the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned.

The massive queues and packed boats persuaded me to defer for another time, there were clearly plenty of football fans getting in a bit of the local culture as well as the local beer.

I wandered about town, saw the central sights (you get a great view from Notre-Dame de la Garde). I feared that the poor Lady who watches over Marseille was about to have a busy night though...

Back to the old port, English fans all in fine fettle, Russian fans mixing well, neutral Scottish fans taking a good natured ribbing and I found myself an air-conditioned pub with Albania vs Switzerland playing. I've a lot in common with a lot of the Swiss team. I love Albania, they love Albania. I've good friends in Albania, they've good friends and family in Albania. I speak Albanian, they speak Albanian. This was going to be a match with needle in it. Easily half a dozen of the best Swiss players were eligible to play for Albania, and have Albanian as their first language. This was the first time in the history of the European Championships that brothers were to line up against each other. The game was good, a red card for Albania just before half time ending their chances though.

Half time was a chance for the pub to get online and what all quickly saw that there was trouble in Marseille. In fact in the old port. In fact 200 meters away from the pub we were in. We did what all good normal people do in this day and age and went outside to film it on our mobile phones so we could upload footage to our twitter/facebook/instagram accounts.

Seems at the top of the street Marseille supporters were attacking England fans and the police were tear gassing anyone and everybody whilst up a lane just in front of us a couple of hundred Russians were battling almost as many England fans. Seemed to be three reactions from England fans on being attacked. Most got out of the area, pronto. A lot got out their phones to film the action, and then there was always a few happy to pick up a chair and carry it into battle. It was an easy decision for me to make, the 2nd half was just about to start and as we went back into the bar the barmaid, non-plussed by the chaos outside, was good enough to announce the beginning of happy hour.

After the game there was still trouble around, and all the happy hours in the world could not change the atmosphere, so we jumped up to a bar near to the stadium to watch Wales play. All was good, until right after Hal Robson-Kanus goal when fans started rushing past us (we were drinking outside the pub on the street, London style, whilst watching the TV screens though the window. Hundreds of Russian fans were coming one way, moving with military intent/precision, balaclavas on and folks were clearing out their way. Fast. Coming along the road to meet them were riot police firing out tear gas. We ducked down a side street with some Russian families to get out the way of the impending clash to find it was a dead end, and that dozens of Russian hooligans had followed us down. At this point the police helpfully filled the whole alley with tear gas and choosing to take our chances with the teargas rather than the Russians we made our way back to the main road and the game.

A pal laughed later that night that he could not smell anything since he was teargassed, I laughed that I could smell everything - it sure cleared the system out! By the time everybody got into the ground everybody from Jamie Vardy’s wife to the smallest children appeared to have had at least one unavoidable dose of gas.

The game was fun, England played like Hibs - pretty football, dominant, unable to win. It was nice to belt out God Save The Queen at the football - I think that may be illegal in Scotland - and England played well and dominated. Plenty of songs ranging from the National Anthem and Rule Britannia to chants disparaging enemies old and new (see German Bombers, the IRA & ISIS) but the most enduring and popular one that seemed to be on repeat was

Don't take me home,

Please don't take me home,

I just don't wanna go to work,

I wanna stay here and drink all the beer,

Please don't,

Please don't take me home...

I can confirm that whilst the press reported #Brexit themed songs I did not start any of them, never mind hear any of them, more's the pity...

The full time whistle brought an immediate change. The balaclavas were back as hundreds of muscle-bound military looking Russians stormed out of their area into the area I was up the back of. The England fans scattered, climbing barriers, jumping walls, anything they could to get out of the way whilst Russian hooligans attacked stewards and anyone else they could get their hands on.

Outside, the ground was massively disorganised as groups of friends tried to meet up with each other and fans tried to work out how to safely get to town. The Metro appeared closed, though they had only closed all doors except one so they could filter people in but there was no signage or stewards letting people know. Not a taxi to be had, no sign of trams or buses and no knowing where or when the Russians or police would bring trouble.

We reckoned we'd seen enough of the old port and enough of the police, so headed to Notre-Dame du Mont area for beers. A nice area, plenty locals enjoying Saturday night mixed in with lots of Russians and English. It's a real pleasure to sit outside drinking into the wee small hours. 

Soon enough though from surrounding streets we heard trouble - chanting and the sounds of the tear gas again. The bar we were in invited/ordered us all indoors, brought the shutters down and we proceeded to have a lock in till stupid o'clock that had the feel of the Port of Leith about it - plenty of Russians and English dancing on the bar.

Streets were quiet as I walked home, but no shortage of broken glass littering the streets.

Next day stopped by Masargues Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Marseille - 1738 casualties there from both wars and several continents. Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Prods in what must have Marseilles most peaceful, tranquil setting that weekend. A special mention must go to a Captain R.V.D Parker, 25, from the Queens Own Royal West Kent Regiment Airborne who has inscribed on his headstone "He died as he lived, seeking adventure". Not a bad way to live. 

It was time to squeeze into a Ryanair seat again and head home - via a few hours stopover in Charleroi - a city that looked like it had been hit by rioting and appeared to have nothing compelling to it other than The Irish Times Pub with some friendly staff working to watch the Northern Ireland game in. 

I've tickets for 8 more Euro 2016 matches, more teams and cities to see, I'm looking forward to them all. Hopefully the excitement in these ones will be ON the pitch as UEFA and our French hosts deal with the issues they so obviously have. 


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