The first days of Euro 2016 already gave enough material for discussion. This is the first in a series of observations from the tournament that’s happening right at my door step.
According to which media channel you consume, the Euro 2016 so far has been an orgy of violence and riots or been a festival of football. Of course, the truth is somewhere in between. It is however, a difficult task to state something positive about a tournament that has seen several days of chaos in Marseille, Paris and Lille. If this was surprising for UEFA and the French organisers, the writing has been on the wall for a long time and the warning signs were clear.
Almost 20 years after England came to Marseille to play Tunisia during the 1998 World Cup the scenes from Thursday last week until Saturday were frightingly similar. English hooligans entered the city and were greeted by Russians as well as French opponents. What followed was carnage. During the game on Saturday night fireworks went off which was a signal for the Russians to start their attack on English supporters. Surprisingly there were no barriers between sets of fans. An eye witness stated to me that England fans who entered the pitch were beaten by French riot police because of entering the pitch. The French did not ask any questions until after using excessive force.
This raises some questions. In the wake of last year’s events, France is understandably nervous about such a mega event taking place in the country. The state of emergency has already been prolonged twice and one can only think that this will be the new normal. This may explain why the police are quick with their batons. Or rather not. Personal experience of mine from 2013 underline that French police are quick to use violence and ask questions later if they are bothered asking at all. Football fans possibly offered an easy outlet for the months of tension that needed to be relieved. The excessive force of the police happened because of the state of emergency!
How can it happen that fireworks get into a stadium in a country that is on high alert? These were orchestrated attacks within the ground during and after the game! Who has let these people in? Apparantly they also were all dressed coherently and were distinguishable from ordinary fans. It simly is beyond belief that is all happened spontaneous. And it all could have happened because of assistance on the inside. The clowns that run this Euro show are now quick to blame Russia when it was their responsibility to keep things in order and to avoid situations like they occured Saturday. Why was alcohol being sold on Saturday? This is no excuse of course but it is a factor that needs to be eliminated or at least minimized. Russian and English fans were placed next to each other with out fencing despite what has happened the days before. Has someone had their heads in the sand and only came up for the match? Surely, somewhere something went horribly wrong, not only from Thursday until Saturday but in the years of preparation for the tournament. At the same time, it is staggering how organized the Russians were and how much support they received from officials. Apparently, those involved fighting were doing so to protect the reputation of their country. They did so in France? Where is the logic in that? The discourse on offer here shows an interesting mindset. Apparently, Europe has become too soft and too gay and the Russian street fighters simply demonstrated what real men are. This makes the prospect of the 2018 World Cup in Russia an interesting one.
Of course, English hooligans cannot be excluded from any guilt. Arriving in Marseille chanting ‘Fuck off EU’ etc simply invites trouble from the locals. Though the roles were reversed. When once the English ran riot in city centres across the football world, they now have taken the role of passive target being subject of attacks from other hooligan groups. The English as victims as they were portrayed is as far from the truth as England from winning the 2018 World Cup, but it is an interesting topic that the English attempt to absolve themselves from any guilt. The media discourse will be discussed and analyzed in a later post.
Similarly there were shocking images from Lille in the North of France where Germans were posing for an image with the War Flag of the Third Reich. They did so openly in the streets of Lille, were not disturbed by police or the locals or other German fans. This is inacceptable and condemnable. It throws a terrible on Germany and its people. Even more so since Germany is trying to keep the European Union working, the image of these morons does more damage to the whole European project than many could think of.
Already the tournament is supercharged with meaning and importance. It comes in the wake of recent attacks in France and Belgium and could demonstrate the approach Europe takes towards terrorism. Would there be a heavy handed approach led by fear and anxiety or a relaxed as we have witnessed in Norway after Anders Breivik’s attack. The actions of the police in Marseille provide a clear answer. This is underlined by the presence of the army near tourist sites and other places in Paris.
What also makes this tournament heavy with meaning is the current state of the European Union. With Brexit looming large over the British participants, England’s game against Wales and Slovakia a few days later could swing the pendulum further towards the Leave campaign. The refugee situation in Europe has brought up and amplified nationalist tendencies not just in the countries of first contact such as Serbia or Hungary but also in Germany. It has shown the rift between a political caste and the electorate in many countries and the effect will be felt severely in 2017 when Germany and France go to the polls to elect new governments. Their results will have far reaching results and could be crucial for Europe. The relationship with Russia is also a strained one to say the least. The issues range from Ukraine to their involvement in Syria and suggest the West has reverted back into a Cold War rhetoric, that is if there ever were attempts made by the ‘democratic West’ to drop this sort of discourse in the first place. What happens should Russia and the Ukraine meet in the later stages of the competition is anyone’s guess.
Calls to ban Russia from the tournament are simply knee jerk reactions and indicate that nothing has been learned. It will only strengthen anti-western feelings in Russia and lead to more aggression from either side. Moreover, demands to strip Russia of the hosting rights for the next World Cup in 2018 is silly. There may be founded fears that the competition will be marred by violence on a far bigger scale than the Euro 2016, though it is a task for FIFA to make it explicitly clear that such incidents will not be tolerated and will have severe consequences. The question is what power does world governing body yield in this respect. It is good to siphon off money from the host nation but taking over any responsibility for whatever may happen during the tournament is not on.
That something needs to be done seems clear. Communication between all partied involved needs to be respectful and established in the first place to avoid a second Marseille. Those concerned with scheduling the event should also reflect upon their decisions, so should the police. A heavy-handed approach might not always work. The historian Tony Judt once stated that football really united Europe. Here is the chance to demonstrate just that.