“You should go,” the man said. “You should go now. Russian and Slovakian hooligans are on their way here now and you must leave this area for your own safety.”
Although the small Slovakia flag face painted on his cheek dampened the menace a little, the warning delivered to two young women hanging around outside Lille’s central train station was a stark one.
His sentiment echoed that of Michel Lalande, one of the city’s government officials, who had predicted that yesterday was going to be a “dark day” in Lille’s history.
It had been suggested that it could go down as one of the most notorious 24 hours in the history of football violence related to the England national team. A day that could eclipse the water-cannon carnage of Charleroi at Euro 2000 and the Marseille running battles from the weekend just gone. Armageddon with premium lager.
The perfect storm was due: three rival nations with noted hooligan elements — England, Russia and Wales — descending on Lille’s centre-ville at the same time. Russia, followed by their so-called ‘hyper-violent’ hooligans, would play Slovakia at 3pm local time while England and Wales fans had been advised to head to Lille ahead of today’s clash in tiny Lens just down the road. The ‘dark day’ metaphor was backed by the violent electrical storm forecast for early afternoon.
French police, it was predicted, would lose all control of the place as three sets of rampaging lunatics set about raising hell in the tranquil, picturesque main square. But as it happened, the dark day turned out to be altogether light — and it didn’t even rain.
Reports of teargas being used to quell rampant fans were true but rather misleading. This teargas had not been used a la Marseille, in a bid to stop dozens of Englishmen from throwing patio furniture and full bottles of 1664 at Russians. It was a rather overzealous method of preventing the clutch of large groups spread across Lille from forming one big mob.
But, on the whole, each group behaved well throughout the day.
The first, and largest, formed in front of the station, as the fans rolled straight off the Eurostar and into the first pubs they could see. Appropriately, one of these was called Hotel Flandre Angleterre.
The main square was peaceful but by 3pm at the station there were around 400 fans drinking, singing, bouncing around and kicking a football into the air. It was nothing untoward. A group of young men relieved of their worries back home for a few days seemingly desperate to sing about it. “Please don’t make me go to work,” they roared.
At that point, around 100 armoured policemen looked on from across the road while, every now and again, seven riot vans would drive round the block with their lights on in a kind of blue-flashing display of might. “Where were you in Marseille?” The crowd chanted in their direction in reference to what has been described by some as poor handling of the situation on the Mediterranean coast.
More interesting was the long line of photographers and broadcast-quality video cameras capturing it all. Football fans getting kicked in the head have become a currency of their own this summer and, much to the disgust of the English, nearly every muscle moved in Lille yesterday was caught on one camera or another.
At this point, Russia were playing Slovakia down the road at Stade Pierre Mauroy, and the Welsh fans were mixing in with the English in a scene of perfect home nations harmony. The threat of those Russian ultras had unified them for once.
But once the Russia game finished, and they had been beaten 2-1 and all-but eliminated from Euro 2016, the tension cranked up across the centre. In the main square, restaurants swiftly emptied and pulled their shutters down. ‘We are closed - fermé,’ one waiter told his customers. ‘Don’t worry about the money, there are 8,000 Russians coming — you must go now. We are shut.’
Back at the station, English and Welsh voices were louder than ever and the police presence had doubled by 5.30pm. Then came the warning to leave from the Slovakian face-paint fan as the onslaught from the former Soviet Union threatened, apparently, to turn the area into a war zone.
A loud bang from a firecracker sent a brief surge of panic through the crowd but it was soon back to singing about Jamie Vardy. In fact, the most aggro any of them got was from a few policemen telling them to stay off the road.
Then came the only flashpoint from an entire day of boozing when it seemed that a black-shirted Russian had appeared on the scene which prompted some of the main group to make a move. The gendarmerie were having none of it — and a few decided to draw for their tear gas.
In the square, some of the group drinking outside the Coq Hardi pub also tried to relocate. Again they were met by a line of riot shields, although no tear gas was required this time. Back across the square they romped, until a squadron of just eight policemen blocked their path. That was that. Back to singing about Vardy’s stealthy prowess in front of goal.
In fact, that was just about that for natural light on the so-called dark day for Lille. No carnage, no chaos, a few skirmishes aside. The hope is now, for Lille and for Lens, the friendly relations between England and Wales spill into today.
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