Knowing they represent my country and my culture just as much as Shakespeare, irony and cricket is a sickening feeling.
As I write this, images of England football fans clashing with French locals, Russian ultras and riot police in Marseille during the European Championships are being beamed around the world. Drunken fat men with shiny bald scalps and tattoos, red-faced and eyes bulging, scream at the French police as bricks and bottles fly through the tear gas surrounding them. The English press is full of claims that ultras from Marseille and Russia were waiting to provoke the English fans, who only reacted to that provocation. That may well be true. But I see the same old looks on English faces and in their aggressive poses, many of them spoiling for a fight, fully aware that the Old Port was where they would find one. If England fans were attacked, it was because the attackers knew they would get a fight from my compatriots. Blaming the Russians, French and police only disguises the fact that there was a whole army of Englishmen there ready to enter the fray.
So even as a football fan, or perhaps especially as one, I can't empathise or excuse this behaviour; quite the contrary, however much they think they've been provoked, the Englishmen in Marseille took to the battle with relish, fuelled by binge drinking and hatred. Although there has been fighting elsewhere, nothing has come close to these scenes at any other game at the Euros. And of that many will be proud, because these English “football fans” are a class apart, a breed that has been all but wiped out of the game in England due to pre-emptive policing, banning orders and the very real threat of imprisonment, but who once abroad feel they can give free reign to the same old reptilian instincts. Knowing they represent my country and my culture just as much as Shakespeare, irony and cricket is a sickening feeling.
So as an Englishman, and a lifelong football fan, how do I explain these images to someone who has never witnessed such outlandish barbarity? It would be convenient to pretend that the bestial behaviour on show in France, even if retaliatory, were somehow a one-off exhibition of aggression by young men who felt the freedom to misbehave once on foreign soil, but anyone who's witnessed the hostility of a Friday or Saturday night after the pubs close in Britain, when groups of young men routinely provoke, posture, threaten and brawl, knows that this is anything but a one-off.
The truth is that even though every society has an ugly side, it's rare for it to get such open exposure in the world's media. I've been to many games at the Camp Nou in my years in Catalonia, and I've witnessed some pretty unsavoury behaviour by Barça fans towards opposition players and fans alike, even the occasional scuffle and punch thrown, but nothing to compare with the barbaric scenes in Marseille.
English society has a problem with alcohol and violence, and it's time that was acknowledged and dealt with. There are no excuses for what happened in Marseille, and there should be no sympathy for the small army of louts disgracing themselves and their country.