Football has revisited the dark ages after football violence between English, Russian, and French football fans plunged the Euro 2016 Championships into chaos.
We found him lying at the end of an alley surrounded by yellowing newspapers speckled with blood.“I can’t see.” He murmured between a quivering lip.
The laceration above his right eyebrow caused the blindness. Had the bottle broke an inch lower he would have been the glass.
And we only came to Wrexham to watch a football match.
As my friend readied himself to travel to France for the European Championships, I reminded him of that day in Wrexham. A time when men were found lying in alleyways covered in blood. Nobody was safe that day: not the lad with spina bifida and not the old man in his 90s.
“Those days are long gone.” Said my mate.
A few days later, several English fans lie in a hospital fighting for their lives after English, French, and Russian thugs go to war in the streets of Marseille ahead of the Group B clash between England and Russia.
It’s ironic how my friend’s wife didn’t want him to travel because she was concerned about a terrorist attack. She was expecting the terrorists to be Jihadi, not fathers from Nottingham, who work in Starbucks.
As I showed my wife Youtube clips of the combat she had one simple question on her lips.
It’s not the alcohol. None of the battles that surrounded me in my youth had anything to do with alcohol. It helped to reduce inhibitions, but the intent always came before the bitter flowed from the barrel.
Men like to fight, and for many of them, football violence is their only hope of war. I am not a man full of nationalistic pride. I don’t want borders. I don’t want to prevent the migration of souls into the country of my birth. And yet, something happens to me when I watch England play. Pride. Pain. Punishment. There is a switch, and it’s turned on. Suddenly, being English means everything to me.
I realised last night that I have been watching England for 30-years, and we have never won anything. Watching England compete at a major competition is a bucket list goal. I would like to share that experience with my family, but after the riots in Marseille, there is no chance.
French police are now considering closing down the ‘fan zone’ area at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Football Supporters Federation CEO, Ben Rumsby, believes UEFA should kick Russia out of the contest for their part in the battles that continued in the stadium, including the launching of flares into the England end.
It’s madness, and I don’t think we have seen the last pictures of families, women, and children ducking underneath a barrage of bottles and bricks.
Group A Round Up
The bookmakers believe hosts France are as likely to win this competition than anyone. It’s not difficult to see why. They won when they hosted this contest in 1984 and did the same when hosting the World Cup in 1998. They are a team full of goals. The midfield and the front line are as good as anything you will see in this contest, but with Patrice Evra and Adil Rami prone to lapses of poor judgment at the back, my money will be going elsewhere.
It was a nervous start for the French after waiting for two years to play their first competitive game. The burden of putting a smile on a troubled nation was seemingly too much to bear at times. Twice Romania spurned excellent chances to take the lead when Stancu missed from close range, although he made amends with the equaliser from the penalty spot after Olivier Giroud had put the French ahead in the 58th minute.
The assist for that Giroud opener came from the foot of Dimitri Payet. The West Ham star was brilliant. At times, I thought I was watching Diego Maradona. And he sent the French fans supersonic after blasting a left-foot thunderbolt into the roof of the net with only a minute left of normal time.
The French fans were in tears, Payet was in tears, and suddenly football fans had something more constructive to do with their pent up emotion.
Group A Results
France 2 v 1 Romania
Albania 0 v 1 Switzerland
Group A Table
1. France – 3
2. Switzerland – 3
3. Romania – 0
4. Albania – 0
Group B Round Up
Wales top Group B after goals from Gareth Bale and Hal Robson-Kanu made sure their first game in the major finals since 1958 ended with a win. It was a superb result for Wales and puts them in pole position ahead of their crucial tie with England on Thursday.
With players like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey on your side you are always going to be a threat in attack, as it proved when Bale scored a world class free kick in the 10th minute to give the Welsh an early lead. From that moment on Wales settled into a rhythm of non-threatening dominance, and they looked likely to cruise to a 1-0 victory.
Then in the 61st minute, Slovakia’s substitute Duda scored an equaliser out of nothing, and the tie changed dramatically. Suddenly, the Slovaks swarmed all over the Welsh, and there was only one team in it. With Ramsey and Bale stuck at the top end of the pitch, the Welsh midfield was overrun as Slovakia looked the likely winners.
But Wales have a fighting spirit epitomised by the likes of Jonny Williams, who ran his socks off before being replaced by the eventual match winner Robson-Kanu. It was the brilliance of another substitute, Joe Ledley, that sparked the move that killed the game off. An inch perfect pass to Ramsey. A stumble and flick to Robson-Kanu. A miskick that sent 20,000 Welsh fans into rapture.
“It was the most important goal of my career,” said Robson-Kanu.
The victory means the Welsh only need a point against either Russia or England to go through to the knockout stages.
Before the tournament began, I fancied England. I haven’t changed my mind despite a disappointing draw against Russia that means England have a lot of work to do in their last remaining games.
If England does fail to shine in this contest, the selections of Roy Hodgson will have a lot to do with it. It boggles my mind how contest after contest, England come into the most critical phase without a settled side. Hodgson’s England side has only lost twice in 23 matches since the World Cup, and those two games were friendlies. His injury concerns have been minimal. And yet, they came into the opening game with a new lineup that created so many unanswered questions.
Why was Harry Kane playing alone up front, why was Vardy on the bench and why didn’t he come off it, and why was Raheem Sterling, a young man who has had a dreadful season, chosen to start this match?
England’s first-half performance was as good as I have seen since they beat Germany in March. And yet they ended the game with a single point. It’s the reason the bookmakers only have them as fourth favourites. It’s the reason they never win anything.
You can’t say that England squandered chances because there weren’t that many clear sightings of the goal. Instead, they are guilty of not turning their dominance into good goal scoring opportunities, and that fact needs to improve if England is to progress deep into this contest.
On the plus side, Kyle Walker looked world class. Wayne Rooney looked every inch a Paul Scholes, and if Adam Lallana can sustain his first half performance for 90-minutes, then he will be one of the first names on the team sheet in the next few games.
Eric Dier also had a solid match at the base of the England midfield and opened the scoring with a screamer of a free-kick in the 73rd minute. The Russians hardly had a kick until seconds before the final whistle when James Milner failed to prevent a cross that landed on the head of Berezutski and looped over Hart into the back of the England net.
Speaking about after the game Joe Hart said, ‘This isn’t the Premier League. We don’t have 38 games.”
You are right Joe.
Now, you only have two.
So you had better make them count.
Group B Results
Wales 2 v 1 Slovakia
England 1 v 1 Russia
Group A Table
1. Wales – 3
2. England – 1
3. Russia – 1
4. Slovakia – 0