The three days of violence between Russian and English football "supporters" produced unsavory scenes last experienced in 2000. Is this a return to hooliganism? DW's Ronny Blaschke offers his thoughts.
The main focus of security ahead of the 2016 European Football Championship was on terrorism. More than 90,000 police and other keepers of the peace have been deployed in France, a country that is still under a state of emergency after last November's terror attacks. Tournament organizers mentioned potential fan violence on the margins, but none of the experts seems to have expected any major incidents. What a mistake.
Viewers haven't seen the sort of images coming of Marseilles since the Euro 2000 in Belgium and the Netherlands. On Saturday, in the waning minutes of Russia's 1-1 draw against England, Russian fans stormed the English fan block in the Stade Vélodrome and started fighting. Torches were thrown on the pitch, fireworks were set off and people had to climb over barriers to avoided being attacked.
It was the latest low point in three days of violence between English, Russian and French "fans" in the city. TV cameras captured ugly scenes of intoxicated men going after one another with plastic chairs, iron bars and glass bottles. French police repeatedly used tear gas and water cannons. Some 35 people were injured, one critically. "Disgrace" read the headline of the French sports newspaper L'Equipe on Sunday.
The various parties involved in the mayhem trade accusations about who is to blame. Representatives of national fan groups point the finger at other countries' fans. Supporters in general have criticized French police for what they see as overreactions. Others point out that those same police have been under extreme levels of strain since the terror attacks last year. Football's European governing body UEFA and Euro 2016 organizers have promised investigations.
But one thing is already clear. France's security plans haven't worked well in the early days of the tournament. Why wasn't there an appropriate buffer zone between Russian and English fan blocks in the stadium? How did troublemakers manage to smuggle fireworks into the arena?
"Isis - where are you?"
The Euro 2016 has its first scandal, and the violence in Marseille needs to be understood in a broader context. For many years, football hooliganism slipped from public view. Awareness campaigns moved on to tackle racism and homophobia. But in recent years hooligan groups have reformed in a number of countries. As diverse as they are, they all share one goal: to use football as an arena for violence.
In Germany hooligans have attacked left-wing, anti-racist ultras at lower-division matches in Aachen, Braunschweig and Duisburg. For at time they formed a network called "hooligans against Salafists." Connections exists between several clubs' fans and German nationalist movements.
Similar developments have been recorded in Poland, Russia, Hungary, Belgium and even Scandinavia. Muscle-bound hooligans have tried to whip up hatred against refugees and immigrants. In Marseilles, which is home to around 200,000 Muslims, some English supporters went around bellowing: "Isis - where are you?"
It seems as though Europe's general political drift toward the Right and increasing Islamophobia on the continent may have lowered the threshold for football violence.
Prevention the best cure
There will be further high-risk matches at Euro 2016 including Germany versus Poland on Thursday in Paris. So what can be done?
German authorities have informed people they see as potential instigators of violence that they are being kept under observation. The German Football Association, the DFB, only sells tickets to German national team matches via the official fan club. Twelve German social workers are on the ground in France attempt to help ward off trouble.
Such initiatives are modeled upon English efforts in the 1990s that sought to combat the endemic football violence of the previous decade, which costs dozens of lives. At first measures centered around doing away with standing-room terraces at stadiums and setting up a hooligan data base. In the new millennium, the emphasis switched to prevention. Some 2500 employees of the 20 clubs in the English Premier League are involved in educational and awareness programs and organize football-related events in local communities. The anti-discrimination initiative "Kick it out" is the best-funded NGO in European football. Violence and racism in English football has been on the wane.
Thus the ugly pictures from Marseilles are all the more shocking. They also signal that a lot still needs to be down. Russian football, in particular, is still marred by regular violence and racism, and Russian authorities have been slow to react to pressure from football's world governing body FIFA. Russian Sports Minister Vitali Mutko's reaction to the Marseilles mayhem ("What does that have to do with the 2018?") isn't exactly encouraging.