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City Tense After World Cup Clashes

June 30, 1998

ST. ETIENNE, France (AP) _ French riot troops displayed a sudden show of force early today ahead of a World Cup playoff between England and Argentina, triggering insults, scuffles and wild baton charges.

Police arrested several English football fans and locals in this central city, 260 miles south of Paris. There were some minor injuries, mostly caused during crowd stampedes.

In a separate incident by the stadium, local ethnic Tunisian youths insulted and attacked English fans, apparently in retaliation for skirmishes in Marseilles two weeks ago, and English fans fought back. Police intervened, arresting nine locals and an Englishman. Some youths burned several cars.

Trouble downtown began shortly after 11 p.m. Monday night, when a huge outdoor screen that showed the Netherlands-Yugoslavia game went blank. Its last image was a message saying it would not show the England-Argentina match tonight.

At the same time, bars and restaurants shut their doors and hundreds of French riot police moved in to clear the area.

Until then, hundreds of Englishmen, scores of Argentines and some French youths had been drinking peacefully together in the balmy open air.

But the mood was tense. Only 2,000 tickets had been made available in England for the estimated 30,000 people coming for the game. Scalper prices were approaching $800.

Some English fans yelled at the police and began singing what has become their World Cup trademark: ``No surrender, no surrender to the IRA″ _ a reference to troubles in Northern Ireland. Within minutes, there were scuffles in the streets.

Police officials had no immediate comment, but all sides _ including British police hooligan spotters _ faulted the French police.

``Why did they do that?″ asked Ben Murphy, 22, an English engineering student from Lincoln, as he watched columns of nervous police in riot gear, backed by burly plainclothes officers, tighten cordons around the brightly lit City Hall square.

``This was ridiculous, just looking for trouble,″ said Mariano Recalde, 26, a lawyer who flew from Buenos Aires to watch Argentina play. ``The cops panic easily here, don’t they?″

Farid Belaid, 22, a French-Algerian printer from St. Etienne, blamed the police for overreacting against young Arabs and English fans.

As police charged, some of the English threatened television cameramen, photographers and reporters, blaming them for the trouble.

An Englishman with shaved head and earrings threw beer on one French photographer. Among obscenities, he shouted: ``It’s because of you they call us hooligans.″

Two British policemen, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said French police might have avoided trouble by quietly isolating potential troublemakers ahead of time.

Still, they agreed that a match between England and Argentina, with their 30-year-old football grudge and the 1982 Falklands War, had serious potential for violence.

Nigel Bobroff of London was taking no chances. He left his wife and 4-month-old daughter in Lyon, 40 miles away, so he could see the game today.

``England has the best (soccer) fans in the world, but the trouble is that it also has the worst,″ he said.

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