Among the hooligans

Ethan Zindler reports that threat and theft take over the town of Lens during the England-Colombia World Cup match.

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

LENS, France June 26: Major soccer tournaments can be violent affairs, and this World Cup has already seen its share of hooliganism. Over the past week or so, the French press has closely followed the case of Daniel Nivel, a national police officer who lies in a coma with severe brain damage after an attack by hooligans. Nivel was on duty in Lens for the Germany-Yugoslavia match when a gang of 500 neo-Nazis went on a rampage through the town. He was cornered and beaten savagely with an iron bar. A photo of the poor guy lying face down in a pool of blood ran on the front page of many French papers the next day.

The fact that Germans staged this latest attack was somewhat unexpected. English supporters are notoriously the continent's most violent, and in the first week of the tournament they lived up to that billing. During two days prior to England's Cup opener against Tunisia, they skirmished with police in and around the Vieux Port in Marseille. It all came to a head on game day with a giant rumble on the Prado Beach involving not only the English and police but Tunisian supporters as well.

Tonight's match is enormously important for England. They looked good but not great during their first two matches. If they don't get a win or a tie, their World Cup is over. Despite inventing the game, England has only won the World Cup once -- in 1966. Perhaps that's part of why English supporters are always so pissed off.

I don't have a ticket to the match but hop the TGV from Paris to Lens anyway. It seems that no World Cup experience would be complete without spending at least a day with the event's more extreme elements. And, who knows, maybe a ticket will come my way.

Outside the train station, all is calm, but there is a vague sense of tension and expectation in the air. Motley, slightly menacing clusters of youths with little or no hair (but plenty of tattoos) linger in the parking lot and outside nearby cafes. There are supposed to be 1,700 riot cops in Lens today, and given that the town itself has a population of only 35,000, one would expect to see them everywhere. But only two traffic police are on duty outside the station. Then again, it's eight hours to game time. It's surprisingly cool and breezy out and the sky is partly cloudy.

Though today is a business day, the streets of Lens are virtually deserted, apart from English supporters. Most of the stores are closed. Several shop owners tell me it's just for lunch. But most appear to have closed for the day. Some say they'll close for lunch, then wait and see. Two women are locking the door to their poster shop. Why? "Because we don't want trouble," one says. What about the loss in revenue? "The English don't spend anything." The Germans and Spanish were much better, they say.

But establishments that might best capitalize on today's crowd are closed as well. The Supp R Lens store sells soccer souvenirs; Irish Tavern and Le McEwan's appear to be English-style pubs. All are closed.

Some shops, however, continue to do business. A fish market on one of Lens' main drags is wide open, with stinky mussels and salmon arrayed beautifully on ice. The owner says that other stores are closed because "everyone's afraid." She says she's not and jokingly grabs a couple of 20-inch mackerels. "I'll hit 'em with these," she says. Her customers laugh.

Farther up the road is a phone booth. As I finish making a call, a startling figure with enormous yellow teeth asks in English, "So what do you think of all this then?" His face and neck are covered with pockmarks from what appears to have been a war lost to acne during his teen years. He's wearing a Levi's jeans jacket and seems to be concealing something rather large underneath.

"You should be careful with that," he says, pointing to my Nikon. "They don't like media." He's a Dutch radio reporter and he's hiding his tape recorder and microphone underneath. Earlier this week, an Associated Press reporter was hospitalized in Toulouse after being attacked by English hooligans. The Dutch reporter tells me that a gang of English fans threatened to throw him in the river in Toulouse after they spotted him recording crowd noise. He's a creepy guy and he's starting to freak me out. Three police buses go flying by in the direction of the stadium, sirens blaring. "There," he says, "it's started." I buy an England scarf and tie it around my photo bag in the hopes that that will buy me a modicum of goodwill from any angry throng I might encounter.

The Argentina-Croatia game is on TV in a cafe across from the train station. Like all the bars and restaurants in Lens today, the cafe isn't serving alcohol. The same conversation between English fans and the bartender can be heard over and over again: "Pint of beer."

"We only have beer without alcohol."

"So then you don't have beer, do you?" Still, many order nonalcoholic beers in plastic cups and grumpily settle in to watch the game.

Soon the place is too crowded. The little gyro joint next door is run by a couple of North African immigrants. It's very hot and dark inside. The air is greasy and thick but there's a big television in the back corner and only two others seem to be watching. Argentina is dominating a good Croatian side. A young Swedish guy is eating couscous and we watch the match together.

But the power keeps going out and the TV along with the rest of the place goes dark. The Swede says that alcohol is available just up the road in the towns of Lille and Arras and that he was there the night before. He saw one English supporter smash a beer glass in some guy's face, then take his ticket to tonight's match. There was blood all over the place. Alcohol is being served in those towns today and many English supporters are still there drinking before taking the train down to Lens for the match.

A few tables over, a Colombian man wearing a Nike T-shirt is selling two tickets for tonight's match for 6,000 francs (about $1,000) to a Frenchman. The deal gets tense as the buyer thinks for a moment that the tickets are fake, but then it goes down and the cash is exchanged. Argentina is playing rock-solid defense and pushing forward with wave after wave of attack on the Croatian goal. Should England win tonight, Argentina is the buzz saw they'll run into in the next round.

But attention turns from the action on TV to that in the restaurant. A tall, muscular English fan in a red Liverpool jersey with a shaved head and tattoos is in the doorway. "Well do you have tickets then? Let me see them," he says rather menacingly to the Colombian in the Nike shirt. The Colombian says he made a mistake; he doesn't have any tickets. But now the big guy and three equally intimidating friends are inside. Only a table stands between them and the Colombian. "Oh really, outside you said you have tickets to sell. Now you say you don't. Where are they?" Liverpool demands.

Sensing trouble, the cafe owner runs over, turns off the TV and yells in English, "Closed!" He tells everyone to get out but no one leaves. Somehow he manages to push the English out the door. He locks the door behind them. My Swedish friend, the Colombian ticket merchant and I are among the last few left in the restaurant. The tall Liverpool supporter bangs on the locked glass door, "I know you've got a ticket! Come on out here!" Once he finally leaves, the owner of the restaurant kicks the Colombian out as well. The Swede and I leave voluntarily.

Generally, it stays light until about 9:30 p.m. in northern France these days, but storm clouds have rolled in and the skies have darkened considerably. The atmosphere on the strip across from the train station is poisonous. Grumpy English fans crowd the sidewalks asking each other for tickets and complaining about the lack of beer. The police are now very much in evidence.

Suddenly, the big guy in the Liverpool jersey goes barreling by, inadvertently smashing over an innocent bystander as he goes. He slyly backhands a couple of tickets to a friend who takes off down an alley. In what must be an attempt to disguise himself, the tall guy removes his Liverpool jersey.

A small band of English fans across the street has seen it all. "He got four tickets!" one yells. The rest cheer. The man who's been robbed wears a Colombia jersey. He runs after the Liverpool supporter and is about to confront him but then thinks better of it, given the number of English supporters. Five riot cops across the street have seen nothing.

Trains arrive from Lille and Arras. As the Swede predicted, supporters stumble off red-eyed, burping, drunk off their asses. Most appear to be no older than 20 and all are male. Almost everyone's in an England national team jersey. They enter Lens through a phalanx of riot cops, now fully outfitted like baseball catchers in SWAT team uniforms. Each wears a heavy helmet with a plastic face shield. They confiscate bottles from the new arrivals, smashing them on the ground, then stamping them into little pieces to the sarcastic cheers of onlooking English supporters.

One of the new arrivals is apprehended immediately as he sets foot in Lens. Four riot cops drag him down the street toward a waiting police van. Another holds an angry German shepherd close by. The cops stop for a moment to allow photojournalists to get a good shot of the kid. About 40 English supporters gathered outside the bars angrily chant, "Eng-guh-lund! Eng-guh-lund!" with fists in the air as he is taken away. Fifteen riot police form a line shoulder to shoulder facing them, riot shields out, batons in hand. Why was he arrested, I ask one of the supporters. There are plainclothes English cops here, he explains, who are picking out the known hooligans for arrest before they can start trouble.

A riot appears imminent, but supporters have nothing to throw because all glass bottles, porcelain plates and metal silverware have been outlawed from Lens cafes for the day. After the thug is driven away, things quiet down. Still, there is a sense that it could explode at any minute.

Clearly, a ticket to tonight's game is out of my price range, so I decide to try to find a quiet place to watch it on TV. But almost all of the cafes in Lens are closed, as are the restaurants and brasseries. Thousands of English supporters wander the streets asking each other desperately for tickets. Many have been boozing down back alleys, drinking beers they brought from home or bought in Lens. There are plenty of bottles around. For Lens' sake, I hope England wins tonight.

Finally, I find La Prensa, a big Italian restaurant at the opposite end of town from the train station. It appears to be crowded inside and an enormous middle-aged woman stands behind a glass door with a sign on it that says, "Complet" (full). I've already been rejected by several establishments with similar signs, but I beg my way in. Inside, the place is crowded with English fans, but not like those near the station. These are just normal soccer fans, looking to support their team. There are even some women among them. It's safe in here.

The game starts and the English play superbly. After taking tremendous heat from the media and the fans, coach Glenn Hoddle has finally agreed to start teenager Michael Owen at striker and he wreaks havoc on the Colombian defense. Owen is the most prominent member of a group of young Liverpool players dubbed "The Spice Boys." At only 17, he led England's top division in scoring last year and tonight you can see why. English players are not generally known for their quickness, but Owen has explosive speed. A long diagonal pass is played out of the midfield and Owen goes streaking down the wing after it, easily outpacing a defender and almost scoring a goal.

By halftime, England is in command, 2-0. The fans in the bar are singing, "Eng-guh-lund, Eng-guh-lund." Argentina is their next opponent and they chant, "Bring on the Argies!" Outside, supporters who were not permitted to enter watch first-half highlights through the windows.

The game ends and fans pour into the street. The tension has broken. Goodwill reigns supreme as fans meet in the streets. They dance and sing, "Two-nil for the Eng-guh-lund" back toward the train station. Thank God the Colombian team is so old and slow.

Aboard the midnight TGV back to Paris, someone tells me that about 30 people were eventually arrested outside the train station in clashes between supporters and the cops. And there was plenty more trouble in Arras, the town just up the road from Lens.

Ten minutes into the ride the train slows as we make our way through the Arras station. Through the shaded window I can see dark silhouettes of English youths on the opposite platform backlit by fluorescent lights. They are yelling something but it's barely audible. Their arms are raised. They are giving us the finger.

By Ethan Zindler

Ethan Zindler is a New York writer/photographer who has covered soccer for a variety of publications. Last summer, he spent five weeks in France at the men's World Cup writing dispatches for Salon's Wanderlust section.

MORE FROM Ethan Zindler

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

British Election England France Latin America Travel World Cup