Thugs Put Damper on Soccer's Party
Thugs Put Damper on Soccer's Party
Jun. 22, 1998
TOULOUSE, France (AP) _ A local newspaper headline screamed, ``Hooliganism: It's Escalating,'' and wary townsfolk scrutinized strangers in their midst. Those English fans seemed harmless enough partying on the Place du Capitole. Were they the hooligans?
In scattered outbreaks of World Cup violence, real culprits were hard to miss. German neo-Nazis bludgeoned a policeman in Lens on Sunday, leaving him near death. English thugs, French-Tunisians and riot troops fought pitched battles in Marseille.
But beyond the incidents themselves, the fear of potential conflict has thrown a wet blanket over an international sporting extravanganza meant to see out the millennium with unprecedented merriment. Authorities are taking no chances.
Marseille at times resembles an armed camp, with metal barriers closing off sections of the Old Port, where local authorities had planned night after night of free concerts.
Lens, a hardscabble industrial town which lives for soccer, is still shaken from Sunday's violence that left a policeman comatose and on a respirator after being battered by German thugs. Lyon, where only small incidents have been reported, is on alert. Likewise, Montpellier, where Germany plays Iran on Thursday.
In Toulouse, where one in six of the 600,000 inhabitants is a university student, the bars now close at 11 p.m. An extra 500 police, with heavy riot gear, patrol the few places where soccer fans gather. Cars are spot-checked coming into town.
Two huge video screens set up so townsfolk and visitors without tickets can watch the games were covered with tarps for Monday's match in which Romania beat England 2-1. Police feared a repeat performance of a rumble on the beach at Marseille.
And there was some trouble. English fans attacked a reporter for the British Press Association on the way to the game, breaking his collarbone. Andrew Woodcock was attacked by five fans who accused the 30-year-old newsman of giving England supporters a bad name and threw him to the ground against a concrete pylon.
``It's a little silly, isn't it?'' said Brian Edwards of Stoke, a peaceable English fan with long experience in soccer crowds. ``The more you act like you expect trouble, the more likely you'll provoke it. There're always a few idiots around.''
Many Frenchmen who waited years to welcome the world are beginning to wish everyone would just go home.
``What a mess,'' muttered Christophe Bourgan, a young French streetsweeper whose crew crisscrossed the Place du Capitole, picking up beer cans, bottles and half-chewed food by the ton. ``This is worse than the Fete de la Musique.''
And this year, even the Fete was cancelled. Every June 21, French cities and towns celebrate summer soltice with a night-long music festival. Toulouse has one of the best, usually drawing 100,000 people. But it was called off to avoid possible trouble.
The first violence erupted in Paris even before the games started. After an elaborate parade, local delinquents got rowdy with kilted Scots, well-lubricated for their game with Brazil. They attacked. When police charged, dozens were hurt in a free-for-all.
Marseille's running battles followed a similar pattern. Youths from the tough part of town waved Tunisian flags _ red flags _ at drunken English fans. A fight started. Police charged, expecting the usual flight to safety. But the English stood and fought.
The German invasion in Lens, with several hundred masked and well-organized roughians giving Nazi salutes, added a new dimension to the threat. Police, already on alert, are now tense, ready to strike firmly and quickly at any sign of trouble.
It is not exactly war.
In Toulouse, perhaps 10,000 Britons gathered to splash in the fountains, play football with beer cans in hand, and sing loud, often rude songs. A favorite was ``Rule Britannia.''
``C'est magnifique, it's wonderful,'' remarked Serge Miquel, a dapper Toulouse retiree, as he walked with his wife, Mireille on his arm. ``All of this life. These splashes of color go well with the pink stones of Toulouse. Hooligans don't scare us.''
But the fans got louder, rowdier and drunker as Monday wore on. They pounded on the sides of passing trucks and leaped onto trucks to wave flags. They were not violent, yet it was clear what any spark might ignite.
Andy Coleman and Toby Pollard, insurance brokers from London, stood in the middle of it, sopping up ale and atmosphere.
``They're just having fun,'' Coleman said, ``and you've got to let them be.''
Last night, he added, lines of riot police ringed the open square, apparently attempting to contain the fans in manageable area.
``It was antagonizing, and it was not necessary,'' he said. ``It just increases the pressure and spoils the fun for everyone. They'd be better off not doing it again.''