MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - The first wave of an expected 70,000 England fans descended on Marseille on Thursday and wasted no time establishing a foothold in Vieux Port to start three days of drinking and singing ahead of Saturday’s Euro 2016 match against Russia.
Noisy and boisterous, bare-chested and full of lager and bravado, they draped the flags around the Queen Victoria “British pub” and roared out their songs of defiance in the time-honored manner of “England Away”, just as they had in the same port-side bars 18 years ago.
Then, building up to their team’s opening game of the 1998 World Cup, a similarly good-natured scene quickly turned into what became some of the worst and most sustained violence ever seen at a major soccer tournament.
Of course, the vast majority of England fans had nothing to do with the trouble, though many still enjoyed the thrill of being part of an “invading army”, bussed in huge convoys, flags waving to the ever-present backing track chant of “Ingerland”.
The early exchanges were between England supporters and a handful of Tunisia fans, swiftly followed by the involvement of French riot police as tear gas and batons took on flying bottles and chairs.
As dusk fell those few locals had grown into a massive mob as thousands of youths from the city’s less glamorous quarters decided they would not take the invasion lying down and proceeded to hunt for and attack isolated England fans, one of whom was lucky to survive after having his throat cut.
Windows were smashed, cars wrecked, paving ripped up for missiles and terrified diners forced to flee as running battles careered down the narrow streets and walkways with tables and chairs flying in their wake and the sting and stench of tear gas hovering over the entire port area for hours.
The next day England beat Tunisia 2-0 but the violence continued, both around the ground and at the beach fan zone, where again running battles continued into the night.
Dozens of people were injured, over 100 arrested or deported and several England supporters were later jailed.
Two years on and front-page pictures of water canon-toting armored cars surrounding a negligible stand-off with German fans in the Belgian city of Charleroi ahead of a Euro 2000 match were the final straw for British politicians.
They introduced the Football (Disorder) Act that gave courts the power to confiscate the passports not just of convicted soccer hooligans but also of those police suspected might be involved in violence.
Thousands of fans quickly found themselves unable to travel and the World Cup and European Championship tournaments since then have been largely free from trouble, despite England fans continuing to travel in mind-boggling numbers.
About 80,000 of them filled the German city of Gelsenkirchen for a 2006 World Cup quarter-final against Portugal and everything passed without major incident despite yet another penalty shootout defeat to dampen the mood.
Just as many — minus almost 2,000 serving banning orders — are expected to descend on Marseille this weekend, with another 20,000 Russia fans, themselves with something of a reputation for trouble, added to the mix.
The majority of today’s England supporters, though, are proud of their ability to support the team in huge numbers without getting involved in the trouble that scarred so many previous events.
“We’ve come over for four days, none of us have tickets but it should be a great crack,” Darren, a “middle-aged” Everton fan, told Reuters on the street outside The Victoria.
“We’ve read about threats from hard-core Russians but there’s always stuff like that and nowadays everybody just wants to have a laugh and see the game.
“I’ve been to a few tournaments with England and I’ve hardly seen any trouble — there’s more every Friday night outside my local kebab shop.”
British police will also be on hand to act as “cultural interpreters” — reminding local police that loud, drunken and seemingly aggressive behavior is not necessarily the precursor of violence.
The authorities are braced, however, with over 1,000 armed police and a further 1,000 stewards on duty at the stadium and over 600 at the fanzone.
But given the heightened state of alert across France in case of another major bomb attack or shooting, a few flying plastic chairs and the odd drunken brawl will be the least of the security forces’ worries on Saturday and in the next month.
Editing by Ken Ferris