Supporters jump over barriers to escape from clashes during England versus Russia Euro Cup football, Marseille, France, 11 June 2016.
(EPA/Peter Powell)

By John Mehaffey

Thugs masquerading as soccer fans have disfigured the 2016 European championships in France in an ugly reminder of the street violence that erupted in Marseille before a match between England and Tunisia at the 1998 World Cup.

This year round, English and Russian supporters hurled bottles at each other in the city’s old port during the buildup to their opening first round match, and police used tear gas to subdue the England supporters, who had been drinking heavily all day.

The Englishmen, chanting anti-French and anti-German abuse, clashed with local French fans. After the match, a group of Russians set off flares in the stand and charged the area where England spectators were sitting.

There were also sickening pictures of drunken Englishmen taunting Romany children in Lille before England’s second match against Wales in Lens. A match between Croatia and the Czech Republic was halted for several minutes after Croatian supporters threw more than a dozen flares onto the pitch.

In England, football hooliganism mutated into a cult of violence.

As the incidents in France demonstrate, football hooliganism is not confined to England and English supporters. But England was where it mutated into a cult and where the weekly Saturday match became an excuse for tribal violence while traveling supporters regularly created carnage when national or club teams played abroad.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the hooligans were often skinheads, with distinctive shaven skulls and virulently racist. Supporters from the south London club Millwall were notorious, regularly clashing with supporters from another London club, West Ham United.

The Chelsea Headhunters, many of them now men in their 40s and 50s, smashed up shops and cafés in Paris in April 2014 before a Champions League match against Paris St Germain.

The nadir for English soccer came in 1985 when 39 Italian fans died before the European Cup final in Brussels between Liverpool and Juventus after a concrete retaining wall collapsed following a charge by Liverpool supporters. English clubs were banned from European competition for five years and Liverpool for six.

A third battle of Marseille is likely if England reaches the semi-finals.

The introduction of the Premier League in 1992, bankrolled by the seemingly bottomless wealth of Sky Television, transformed the English game. Stadiums were revamped, ticket prices soared and soccer became not only respectable but overwhelmingly the most significant sport in Britain.

But the rancid and violent undercurrent associated with the game in England never went away, as became apparent six years later when violent battles between English supporters and French police and Tunisian fans raged for two days before a World Cup match in Marseille.

The current England side advanced to the knockout stages after finishing second to Wales in their group and are now in the side of the draw which will mean a return to Marseille if they reach the semi-finals. A third battle of Marseille would then seem inevitable.

John MehaffeyJohn Mehaffey worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.

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