The cosmopolitan port of Marseille (sometimes known as 'Marseilles') is not only France's oldest city but one of its proudest. From its ground breaking rap music to its ubiquitous football team, from its ancient traditions to its modern and dynamic cultural life, this is truly a city like no other.
Since its founding 26 centuries ago by the Greeks of Phocaea, Marseille has always been proud of being different. One of the city's greatest assets is the wild natural beauty that surrounds it: shaggy islands, countless beaches, a superb marine life and eerily beautiful chalky fjords.
15 Jun 1998 - Marseilles, FrancePat, Nick, Fraser and myself made the long journey by car for the World Cup, France '98. I didn't have any tickets and the only tickets that our party did hold were for the Group game between Holland and South Korea. Insignificant perhaps, but Fraser and Pat were the lucky owners of these. Never mind, even without tickets for the games the fact that I could watch 3 live matches a day on TV and not be at work more than compensated for this ticket deficiency. What was more, for the England football team, today was the day of their first Group match against Tunisia in Marseille.
For the build up to this game, Marseille saw an influx of England fans who turned into England's usual drinking and singing mob. Small riots had occurred in the town centre and small fights had constantly erupted. This formed the background to what we were about to arrive in. Upon arriving in Marseille at the main bus station the police had prevented England fans from going any further and had scheduled buses for those without tickets to go to the beach and watch the game on large screens that the authorities had erected. A local radio station was also there to interview the English and one of those interviewees happened to be Patrick. Pat was very professional and put his media head on. When asked about the likelihood of trouble Pat gave a lengthy response but gave a prophetic reply that anything could spark off trouble; for example, something like a thrown bottle could be the spark - how right he was!
We boarded a bus and found that we had a police escort through a hate filled town. Local youths of North African descent lined the roads spitting on the bus and through the windows, and jeering at the occupants while the occupants of the bus gave back as good as they got and added chants of, "You can stick yer fu*kin' camel up yer ar*e, you can..."
Being in the middle of this was a surreal experience. Lots of people joined in but why? Were they a hooligan element or was it just classic crowd behaviour? I think it was the latter. Conformance with what the norm appeared to be allied to a feeling of solidarity with an in group whilst being on the receiving end of a lot of aggression from an outside group. At some points even my pals including myself shamefully joined in with the chanting though we felt uncomfortable doing it. An old, respectable looking chap next to me even joined in on a few occasions but I could see that it was very half hearted. Was he undercover police or a fan? I just don't know.
When we got to the beach area we decided to go for some brunch and took a seat outside a restaurant. At this point I relied on my good friend Pat to look after my bag while I went to the toilet. When I came back I found the lads had a got a table inside under cover from the sun but Pat had forgotten my bag. I wasn't happy so went outside to find my bag and was pleased to see it was still there. However the side pocket was open and my wallet with all my credit cards had been snatched! This left me in financial trouble for the rest of the holiday. Fortunately I had not taken out all of my money and had most of it squirrelled away at the campsite.
After our meal we went back to the beach and found it packed out with English but though it wasn't yet 1pm the nearby supermarket had sold out of most of it's beer. All that was left were kegs of beer so we were left with no option other than to buy one. What a recipe for disaster though - a supermarket full of alcohol on sale next to several hundred football fans. On top of the supermarket were well placed TV cameras ready to capture whatever happened.
It all started off good natured. Lots of fans joking and excited before the game. We tried to open our keg which we managed to partly do. The lads held it over me so that I could drink from it but the tap broke and the beer came gushing out over my head and England football top that I was wearing. Photographers were around me and took photos of me drinking and then getting drenched by the beer. For all I know, my photo may have appeared in a newspaper somewhere in the world under a headline of 'DRUNK ENGLAND FANS ON RAMPAGE!"
Anyway, we found a patch of ground near the front of the beach to watch the big screen. Plenty of England fans were all around and the Tunisian fans were at the back far enough from me to be outside of bottle throwing range. All the England fans around me were happy to watch the game peacefully so it would be wrong to think that England fans are always ready to start a fight. England scored the first goal and then the real fun started. After celebrating the goal I turned around to see a bottle flying through the air in to the England fans behind me. This was the trigger and I had a great if scary view of what happened next. Suddenly, hundreds of fans got up and then it just erupted. Battles started between rival fans. In the front line an England fan fell to the floor as the English started retreating. This fan was then assaulted by the North Africans. Someone in the English lines shouted, "Hey, there's an English guy on the floor" and somehow without anything further being said a coordinated effort was made to rescue 'our' boy.
Like the opening battle out of Gladiator, a mass of England fans charged the Tunisians who soon who fell back. One English fan carried on alone into 30 or 40 Tunisians in a stand. They all shrank back and the lunatic continued into them, stole their flag which was on a stick and ran back to the English fans holding their banner aloft! I hope that these Tunisians felt disgrace at losing their standard! Decimation in the Roman meaning of the word is surely the only suitable punishment for this kind of negligence.
After this the lines began to blur and fights started happening in different directions as local youths started getting involved and throwing anything that could be thrown. The England fans retaliated and I saw plenty of head wounds that day. This was all getting very scary and we sought sanctuary with the riot police who were quite content to let the groups of fans throw objects at each other. When fights broke out the police were ready to interject but other than that there was nothing they could do. One of the police actually said to me that this was no worse than when Marseille play their football rivals. This leads one to ask the question, just how much to blame were the English fans on this day?
Luckily for us, Fraser had spent a year in this part of France the previous year so knew how to extract us from this without having to walk the gauntlet back to the town centre that most of the England fans were taking. Fortunately we managed to get away without any further incident but what a fascinating experience it is being in the middle of a riot.