Richard Sutcliffe: UEFA and French chiefs are equally culpable for Euro 2016 violence

England supporters take evasive action after French police fired tear gas at them in downtown Marseille on Friday. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
England supporters take evasive action after French police fired tear gas at them in downtown Marseille on Friday. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
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AND SO a nervous nation awaits the next chapter.

Following three days of carnage in Marseille that culminated in UEFA threatening both Russia and England with expulsion from Euro 2016, the paths of the two countries are set to cross once again in France.

The nonsensical scheduling that judged the Mediterranean port a suitable place to stage a fixture that always had the potential to blow up now sees Russia and England decamp north together at the same time.

Russia play Slovakia tomorrow afternoon in Lille, exactly 24 hours before Roy Hodgson’s men meet Wales in Lens.

Just 23 miles separate the two towns and the most ludicrous part of all is that, as recently as last week, the local chief of police was advising England fans without tickets to stay out of Lens, where a booze ban will be in place, and instead watch Thursday’s Group B clash in...Lille.

If the potential ramifications were not so serious, the blundering of both UEFA and the French authorities would be almost funny. As it is, an already dispiriting start to what should be the highlight of European football’s calendar could be about to get a lot worse.

Around 100,000 fans are expected to travel from the UK for the England-Wales fixture, the vast majority of whom will not have tickets for a stadium that holds just 35,000.

Two Home Nations going head-to-head in a major tournament would represent a big enough security risk on its own, but throw in the presence in Lille of the clearly organised, almost paramilitary-style, Russian thugs – described yesterday by the chief prosecutor of Marseille as “hyper-fast” and “hyper-violent” – and it is no wonder there is an impending sense of doom surrounding the next 48 hours.

The UK police have already moved to urge English and Welsh fans to ignore the pre-tournament advice of their French counterparts that they should make Lille their base for Thursday’s Group B clash.

“It is realistic to expect that the Russian fans will seek to try to behave in a similar way,” said Mark Roberts, the lead for football policing in the UK. “The majority of Russian fans are no doubt decent folk, but there is a hardcore group who are willing to use extreme violence. They will be in Lille the night before and people should just bear that in mind.”

Such advice is merited. Whether it will be practical, however, is less clear. Most accommodation was booked months ago and changing plans at this late stage will neither be easy nor cheap.

Likewise, those fans staying in Lille may be able to steer clear of potential flashpoints such as the main square that saw fighting between German and Ukraine fans on Sunday during their stay but, as Marseille proved, the Russian hooligans think nothing of launching unprovoked attacks on rival fans unfortunate enough to cross their path on even the seemingly quietest of streets.

UEFA are culpable in this mess for their refusal to alter a schedule set in stone long before the draw for a European Championships is made. Anyone with only the slightest knowledge of football hooliganism knew within seconds of last December’s draw that England v Russia on a Saturday night in Marseille was a recipe for problems.

So, why not allow such a powderkeg fixture to be moved elsewhere? Similarly, the first meeting of England and Wales at a major finals should not be played in a town whose stadium has such a small capacity and the number of hotel beds barely stretch into four figures.

Jiggling the schedule six months ago could have avoided not just those awful scenes from last weekend but also prevented Lille having to spend the next 48 hours preparing for the worst.

That, though, is not how UEFA – or FIFA, for that matter – work.

Intransigence abounds at both governing bodies, be it a steadfast refusal to alter a tournament schedule or, as I discovered on a fact-finding trip to Hanover ahead of the 2006 World Cup, the implementation of a rule book so petty that all door locks at the city’s stadium had to be changed because they were not the make of FIFA’s preferred partner.

Such arrogance is also why the lessons of the Europa League final, when a lack of segregation saw fans of Sevilla and Liverpool clash inside the stadium, were not heeded ahead of Euro 2016, as underlined by the ease with which the Russian thugs were able to attack English fans within moments of Saturday’s final whistle being blown.

All we can do now is cross our fingers and hope that last weekend can, as was the case in Euro 2004 when violence involving England fans flared early on in the Algarve only for the rest of the tournament to be played out amid a party atmosphere, prove an isolated incident. Somehow, though, this seems unlikely.