At the end of May I spent a very enjoyable weekend pottering around Avignon and attending the final day of the Toulon Tournament, famous for being a showcase of promising young talent from across the globe, as well as for its hit-and-miss organisational issues. I ate lovely food, went to art galleries, bumped into various U23/U21/U20/whatever teams in hotel corridors, and watched some football. So, with tickets for two Euro 2016 matches, I planned another travelogue piece, taking in food, sunshine, art…all to benefit Unusual Efforts readers of course.
At that point, things went through the looking glass a bit. I’ve led a reasonably sheltered life so have never previously been tear-gassed, for example; or witnessed a battalion charge by organised hooligans. That changed – followed by fireworks let off in the Vélodrome and another terrifying charge, from the Russian area to the neutral seats next to it. For a detailed account of how that weekend panned out, see the link above.
Flares and fireworks have become something of a theme throughout the tournament, with multiple matches featuring the familiar smoky red glow in the stands, and Croatia taking things to entirely new levels by peppering the pitch with incendiaries in an apparent attempt to get their own team knocked out of the tournament. Although fairly standard in French football, such that some teams put out plaintive requests to fans to stop setting the bloody things off because it’s costing a fortune in fines (I’m paraphrasing), given the heightened security footing that the authorities are on, the shot into the night sky at the Vel was both a surprise and a worry.
It was also only the most obvious sign that the organisation of the Euros was struggling.
Shortly after the violent incidents down at the Vieux Port, you might have expected security to be tight getting into the stadium – but it was nothing to what I’m used to attending Ligue 1 matches in far less pressed circumstances. My water bottle was taken, because I offered it, but the bag search was a vague glance inside, no attempt to look under what was immediately visible, or in any of the pockets on it (one of which I hadn’t even realised was a pocket until one of the Montpellier stewards asked me to open it last season).
No pat-down. No ID check. And she was on her own – I’d gone to the woman steward as is customary to keep things moving, but she had no back-up near her. When a drunk England fan grabbed his crotch and thrust it towards her in a weird attempt to prove his suitability to be in the line ‘pour des femmes, for women, girls’, I snapped at him to grow up, she thanked me – then steeled herself to deal with him anyway.
Inside the stadium, we lost one of our party for about ten minutes as he was directed to the wrong seat (by two separate stewards), and had just waved him over when we all had to stand up as a Knight Templar made his way along our row, looking cross, having also been pointed in the wrong direction. It looked as though the internal stadium staffing wasn’t just private security only, but not even the regular Vel stewards, who would at least know which block was which. During the match, the much-vaunted total smoking ban was ignored. There was no attempt to get anyone to sit down.
All these things individually might not be big deals, but it looked like the volunteers trying to manage all this were the same people forming the terribly thin fluorescent line between the Russian stand and the neighboring neutral area that only served to highlight its own vulnerability. And that was a big deal.
After the events of the opening weekend, some things changed – riot police inside the stadium, for example. But those flares kept getting in. After the trouble in Marseille there had been jokes about other teams’ fans causing chaos by helping to change tyres, taking selfies together, and teaching each other their songs. You wondered if this might extend to the lax security rules: we’d see Swedish fans carrying in a bunch of flat-pack furniture and constructing a full dining room in the stands during half-time, or Portuguese fans fashioning a life-size model of Ronaldo out of Meccano. Sadly, that was not the case.
The DIY theme continued elsewhere, however; after some cutting remarks from Didier Deschamps about the effect that a mid-May AC/DC concert at the Vel had had on the pitch for France v Albania, there were rumours that the Lille pitch had been painted green after just two matches given its terrible state before Switzerland v France.
Painting a pitch is such a surreal idea you wondered if we’d move on to complaining about extra hedgehogs on the pitch as the ball boys ran around dressed in Panini-sticker tabards trying to stop the flamingo corner flags from wandering off. The fact that the Swiss shirts appeared to be made out of rice-paper didn’t help. Mind you, the new format has been accused of being ‘all must have prizes’ so maybe this is just a thematic extension, and the Dodo could be brought in as a tactical analyst for the rest of the tournament (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said). The Lille pitch ended up being replaced just two days before Germany v Slovakia, looking mostly like badly-laid carpet made up of roll-ends and patches.
My second trip out was to Toulouse for the Round of 16 game between Hungary and Belgium, which was a much more laid-back experience, mostly involving Belgians everywhere, quite a few Portugal fans who’d clearly been expecting to top group F but were going to enjoy themselves whatever, and heavily outnumbered Hungarians showing solidarity by greeting each other cheerfully as they passed in the street. The fancy dress nature of the colours on display gave it a street-party vibe; in a bar where they were making sangria with more passion than tactical acumen at 11.30 in the morning the owner looked askance at the man in the red-yellow-gold fright-wig and matching nappy who had, ironically, popped in to use the toilet.
The most inconvenient thing that happened in this town was when we inadvertently found the fan-zone while trying to get to the botanical gardens (how we roll) and had to take a detour; and then again when we tried to leave. “But we want to get out”, I said to the steward demanding a bag check at the main gate, pointing to the large banner saying ‘sortie’ behind him. “That’s the entrance,” he said, stony-faced. Either a cunning plan to confuse any potential drunken hooligan element, or, as my friend suggested, they had hung the banner the wrong way round. So, another detour.
At the stadium, they had at least made an effort to organise the security checks, with the women directed to three posts; unfortunately with the representation closer to 50/50 at our gate this caused a bit of a delay. The bag-check was also much more thorough – at least from my steward, who seemed to take her job very seriously, and took a broad construction approach to the official stadium rules. While one of the Hungarian fans at the next post cheerfully hugged her steward during the pat-down, mine was rootling around in my bag repeatedly saying ‘interdit’.
Confiscating a lighter might be within section 6.1(d) but when half the crowd of chaps patiently waiting for their companions were passing the time by having a cigarette directly behind the barrier, the application of the rules looked pretty inconsistent. And given 6.1(a) I can kind of understand why she took the two biros – I have the first three Bourne films on DVD, after all – but I fail to understand how I could have fashioned a weapon from anti-histamine cream, Norwegian formula lip balm and a decongestant nasal inhaler; I’m not in sodding Scorpion.
And what was I left with? A third biro – in the same pocket that she took the other two from – and spare lighter, in one of the three sections of my bag she didn’t check. Simultaneously officious and inefficient.
The first of the quarter finals – again at the Vélodrome – started with a flare, and featured a pitch invader, in yet another win for the security detail. Ed Malyon drily observed “He could have had a knife is what I’m contractually-obliged to say.” There is a sense that some of this is nitpicking, particularly with the cult-hero status afforded to japesters such as Jimmy Jump and France’s own Remi Gaillard (not seen so far; I suspect that may change). But the authorities are supposed to be on high alert, yet they don’t seem to have the same hymn-sheet let alone be singing from it.
There isn’t an atom of meaning in it. Things will probably be fine. But it’s been a weird couple of weeks in Euroland. Let’s hope football is the winner.