Violent clashes in Lille were unnecessary, but we must keep perspective despite the negative headlines around Euro 2016, writes Jonathan Harding in Lille.
“We're all behaving today, there's no need for you to be here. A happy picture doesn't make news,” one England fan said to me opposite the “La Loca” cafe in Lens ahead of their game against Wales. I wanted to point out that I was in fact there that day to show exactly that – the happy picture. Violent clashes in the south have stolen the headlines, sapping the sporting aspects of the tournament, and even the pre-June fear of further terrorist attacks. The need for positive images was all the more necessary, particularly considering they’ve been the overwhelming sight at Euro 2016 so far.
In front of me, hundreds of fans from both countries were enjoying brief spells of sunshine and the beer that everyone thought wasn't going to be there. “I was told to pour out my beer at the train station, but then I walked up the road and got a new one at the bar,” another England fan told me. Although the English fans are perhaps a few decibels louder, this is a picture of celebration not confrontation.
From the opening day in Paris' fan zone, fans of all 24 participating nations did more than just wave flags for hungry camera crews. Songs were sung, teams were cheered and people learned there’s more to Iceland than the cold, more to Wales than Gareth Bale, more to Albania than Granit Xhaka’s brother. I learned how melodic Ukrainian fans are, as they drowned out their German counterparts in a friendly singing competition on the train to the stadium in Lille. Ahead of England and Wales, there were plenty of friendly exchanges as fans embraced the chance to finally face each other in football not rugby. I even saw a France fan try to follow the words to “Don’t Take Me Home” – a song that England fans seemingly cannot stop singing.
What I saw in Lille was not to be compared to the scenes in Marseille. The sound of a firecracker and the rush of a crowd sparked what was otherwise just loud, drunk singing into a surge of people desperate to be involved in something but mostly unsure as to what. Tension spilled over late in the evening after all-day drinking swelled not just the size of the group of fans but their brashness too. In a horribly primal scene, the police – who had spent most of the day battling the line between vigilance and action – lined up and eventually pushed forward to disperse the crowd.
Alcohol available, apparently
Although the French police force is undoubtedly stretched after recent strikes and protests, there are some troubling question marks surrounding communication with local authorities. UEFA have hardly acted with the authority one might expect from a governing body, and are now overwhelmed with in-stadium safety after an ever increasing number of flares have reared their bright, ugly heads.
Alcohol consumption also remains a concern. I asked the UEFA bar staff around the Lille stadium ahead of Germany’s opener against Ukraine. The waitress told me: “We are serving alcohol-free beer… But if you want some beer, the bar behind us is open.”
Anxiety is valid and the violent clashes are deplorable, but all the fans I’ve met in France are not concerned or afraid. One and a half million foreign football fans are expected in France this summer, and the majority of them have come to support their countries and make different headlines.
Europe’s cracks are showing more than ever, and many feel violent clashes, strikes and the threat of terrorism at Euro 2016 are mirroring that pressure. That thought doesn’t appear to be shared by the majority of fans I’ve met in France, all of whom are creating a positive atmosphere that might subconsciously spark Europe back into life. With the next tournament due to be hosted across the continent, this might be the last time we see Europe come together in one place. Straining but still going, Euro 2016 has largely been a happy affair for those attending and I think that has to count for something.