"The narrative that English fans were primarily responsible for starting the trouble quickly set in"

The media are too quick to blame England fans for Euro 2016 violence

By Jamie Smith

They call hooliganism the English Disease, so it was no surprise to see the finger of blame quickly pointed at England fans when trouble first flared in France.

The tournament has been going for less than a week and sadly most of the headlines generated by the European Championship have been about disorder off the pitch. The narrative that English fans were primarily responsible for starting the trouble quickly set in.

The only problem with this is that the story was largely untrue. As quickly as the media started rolling out the old stereotypes about Stone Island-clad English hooligans, a very different story began emerging via social media of what was really happening on the ground.

It became clear that in Marseille, a deprived city where England played Russia last Saturday, gangs of local youths were roaming around, seeking supporters to attack. It was also clear that organised Russian hooligans had travelled to France with the express aim of targeting English fans.

There’s no doubt there are some so-called England supporters who are in search of a fight. However, it’s a tiny minority of those who have travelled to France.

Football Hooliganism

There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of England fans in France for Euro 2016. The vast, vast majority of them will have a drink and watch the football without being involved in any hooliganism. They didn’t need to be told how to behave by England captain Wayne Rooney and manager Roy Hodgson.

You would think, in the year that Hillsborough campaigners finally got the justice they have been fighting for, that journalists would take more care before jumping to conclusions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that these lessons have been learned.

The rush to be first to the story rather than accurate, means mistakes are made. Even if falsely setting up England fans as mindless hooligans was not a deliberate tactic, the mud has stuck. Most news outlets after England’s 1-1 draw with Russia on Saturday led with the line that England fans had caused the trouble, even as videos were posted on the internet of Russian supporters charging at England supporters inside the stadium.

The evidence was right there in front of our eyes: a father, cowering with his young son, begging for mercy. These were quite clearly not hooligans, yet in the eyes of some parts of the press, all England fans are one and the same: drunken louts, up for a fight.

The actions of the French police have exacerbated the situation. They have been too quick to charge with batons, too ready to unleash tear gas and water cannon, and are too unapproachable. Clips show England supporters being charged by the police – attacked after appearing to do nothing worse than getting drunk and singing songs.

When situations have grown tense, the massed ranks of riot police grow and await the slightest reason to employ force, unleashing batons on fans who might well just be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The security issues are worrying. Russian supporters have managed to get flares into both of the stadiums hosting their group matches. This is at a time when you would think that security would be as tight as possible after the Paris terror attacks in November.

If you listen to the England fans it is clear there are major organisational problems. After matches there is often no public transport, while taxis refuse to travel to potential flashpoint areas, leaving match-going fans to walk miles to their accommodation in the dark. At times they have been sitting ducks to be picked off by gangs.

Yesterday England played Wales in Lens, a tiny place not remotely equipped to host such a massive match. So authorities advised ticketless supporters to instead head to nearby Lille. The very same place where Russia played Slovakia the day before. It is a shambles.

Blaming England fans is easy and obvious, but it’s a false narrative. At the time of writing, more England fans are in hospital than have been charged for their role in the disorder. Twenty Russians are being deported, including the leader of the All-Russia Supporters Union.

The media should be looking below the surface instead of parroting out the same old tired, incorrect lines about the ‘Disease’ of English football.

Jamie Smith is a freelance sports journalist, blogger and podcast host who lives and works in Leeds. You can follow him on twitter here.

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