Hooliganism is making a comeback, and the timing could be bad with four high-risk matches in the first week of the European Championship in a country where the police force is already under huge strain.
Should one or more of these matches — England vs. Russia in Marseille on June 11; Turkey vs. Croatia the next day; and England vs. Wales and Germany vs. Poland both on June 16 — descend into violence, the football itself could quickly become overshadowed.
Police forces in France have been stretched since last November's deadly terror attacks that killed 130 people. The last thing French authorities need is thugs causing mayhem. However, in the last two months alone there has been an increase in soccer violence around Europe.
At the French Cup final, fans managed to sneak flares and objects into the Stade de France, despite a two-meter high security wall and triple security checks, while others tried to invade the pitch, raising serious concern ahead of Euro 2016, where the opening match between France and Romania takes place on June 10. In Germany, too, several hundred fans from Dynamo Dresden were held back by riot police to stop them attacking bitter rivals Madgdeberg in a third-division match in April, and mass arrests were made in May during the troublesome local derby between Frankfurt and Darmstadt.
In Sunday's League One playoff final at London's Wembley, fights broke out among supporters; Rangers and Hibernian fans poured onto the field to do battle at Hampden Park in the Scottish Cup final — a worrying throwback to the mid-1980s when hooliganism blighted Britain — Liverpool and Sevilla fans traded punches in the Europa League final in Switzerland; FC Zurich thugs charged down the tunnel last Wednesday to try to attack their own players following relegation from the Swiss Super League, and then battled riot police outside.
Although centered on inter-club rivalries, these troubles highlight how hooliganism has been creeping back after several years of good behavior.
In November, 2014, 43-year-old Deportivo fan Francisco Javier Romero Taboada died in hospital after emergency services had rescued him from a river where he was dumped after being heavily beaten during a fight against rival hooligans from Atletico Madrid.
This season, the Europa League has been hit with football violence. Heavy fighting at night between Italian side Napoli and Polish club Legia Warsaw, street battles between Spanish side Athletic Bilbao and Marseille; city center riots in Amsterdam between Ajax played Turkish club Fenerbahce. Other trouble involving, Lech Poznan from Poland; Belgian side Anderlecht, and Moscow-based sides CSKA, Lokomotiv and Dinamo.
A further 10 matches at Euro 2016 are identified as risky — including Germany vs. Ukraine; Slovakia vs. England, and Russia vs. Wales — and there will be increased border controls and tighter security at train stations and airports, in addition to eight police spotters from each country to identify potential hooligans.
"All of those who are subject to a banning order will be prevented from leaving their country by their local police in so far as their legislation allows," said Antoine Boutonnet, the head of French police's anti-hooliganism division. "Furthermore, we have gathered information on potential risks and will continue to do so during the tournament."
But hooligans show determination and ingenuity to avoid police detection.
A LOOK AT THE 5 HIGH-RISK GAMES AT EURO 2016 AND OTHER RISK FACTORS:
ENGLAND VS. RUSSIA: JUNE 11 IN MARSEILLE:
The match is being held in the sunny seaport of Marseille and the fact that English and Russian football fans are likely to be drinking in the sun adds to the risk. As well as potential for violence between English and Russians, there is history between the English and the local Arab population of Marseille stemming from the 1998 World Cup, where Marseille's old port and nearby beach were turned into battle zones in two days of fighting around the England-Tunisia game.
"That is a considerable time ago and the behavior of England fans has improved markedly since," assistant chief constable Mark Roberts, who leads soccer policing in Britain, told The Associated Press. "(But) we need to be careful not to assume."
The risk of confrontation with Russian groups could be higher because their traditional inter-club rivalries will have been put aside, with a new hooligan's charter explaining how they should stick together. One bulletin point reads: "During Russian national team matches, all groups must be united, without fighting each other. This is cease-fire."
TURKEY VS. CROATIA: JUNE 12 IN PARIS:
This match also carries risk, on a historical and geo-political level.
"When Turkey played Croatia in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals in Vienna (Austria), there were incidents in Mostar (Bosnia) where the Bosnians were supporting Turkey," Loic Tregoures, a lecturer in world politics at Lille university and a specialist in Balkans football, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The Croatians have a few virulent groups, notably Dinamo Zagreb's BBB (Bad Blue Boys) and Hajduk Split's Torcida.
Another potential problem could arise from PSG hooligans, who were among the most active in Europe in the past 20 years until a massive clampdown five years ago. Banned from their own Parc des Princes stadium, PSG hooligans have targeted Champions League fixtures, clashing violently with Zagreb's BBB in the Bastille area of Paris the night before a Champions League game in Dec. 2012. As well as the potential for clashes between PSG's hooligans and BBB — another dark threat exists.
"There are Serbs among the former PSG hooligans, so you can imagine what could happen," Tregoures said. "This kind of tournament is the opportunity to measure oneself."
ENGLAND VS. WALES: JUNE 16 IN LENS:
Among the more prominent hooligan elements in Britain are Chelsea's "Headhunters" and Cardiff's "Soul Crew" — and hundreds fought on the Kings Road in London before an FA Cup match between the sides in 2010. Such inter-club rivalries may potentially resurface on the international scene, where hooligan groups have followed the national team. This means potential scope for trouble between thugs from Wales and other English hooligan groups should they come across each other; and also Welsh in-fighting between sworn enemies Cardiff and Swansea.
The location of Lens, in northern France, makes it easy and quick to reach from Paris.
"Given the proximity to France there is the potential for people to make multiple trips out there," Roberts told The AP. "If we identify someone who causes problems we will seek a banning order immediately to prevent them traveling again to France."
GERMANY VS. POLAND: JUNE 16 IN PARIS:
Polish and German hooligans seeking to clash at the 2006 World Cup were foiled when police intercepted Polish hooligans trying to enter Germany. The hooligan culture in both countries tends more toward pre-arranged meets — "Fights" — often in forests or deserted areas.
There has been a revival in hooliganism in Germany, especially in the east with teams from Dresden and Liepzig, while Poland has some of Europe's most violent hooligan groups (Lech Poznan, GKS Katowice, Legia Warsaw, Cracovia and Wisla Krakow).
The main threat here would be a confrontation of a pre-arranged type, rather than a sporadic outbreak of violence.
"(Polish hooligans) will try and make contact, offer to arrange meetings — but whether anyone accepts is a different matter," Tregoures says.
UKRAINE VS. POLAND: JUNE 21 IN MARSEILLE
While football violence in Ukraine is prominent at club level among hooligans from Dynamo Kiev, Shakhtar Donetsk, Meltalist and Dnipro, Ukrainian hooligan groups don't usually travel to national team games. However, they have put aside club feuds and have extra incentive to come to France.
"This is the first tournament since the war, and the Russian presence may increase their motivation to travel," Tregoures said.
So long as they manage to enter the country, journeying to France should not pose a problem for thugs because their motivation goes a long way — sometimes literally.
Last November, hooligans from Red Star Belgrade drove for hours in white minivans — slipping the police by claiming they were on a wedding-party trip to Athens — in order to attack Balkan rivals from Dinamo Zagreb's BBB hooligans at Athens airport.
Zagreb fans were flying back from the airport following a Europa League game against Olympiakos. So Red Star teamed up with thugs from Olympiakos — friends from a long-standing alliance — to attack BBB hooligans.
The explosion of ultra-violence, in broad daylight and captured on Greek TV, ended with two BBB hooligans lying on the floor, blood pouring from their heads.
When Dynamo Kiev hosted Dinamo Zagreb in 2012, Russian hooligans from Spartak Moscow travelled nearly 900 kilometers to fight with BBB.
"They left three days before, saying they were going to a concert," Tregoures said.
Unlike other countries like Germany, the French riot police do not initiate dialogue with troublemakers. It is more about repression than defusing a situation, and police over-reaction can escalate a rowdy situation into a dangerous one. When Lille hosted Everton in the Europa League in October, 2014 beer-fueled Everton fans, singing songs and dropping the odd glass, were baton-charged and had CRS gas sprayed on them. When PSG faced Chelsea in the Champions League in February, there were reports of Chelsea fans being tear-gassed during their goal celebration.
There will be multiple situations during Euro 2016 where large groups will gather, drinking and singing — without necessarily posing a threat.
"We have got to understand that the numbers going, some of them may not have been to football before," Roberts said. "They will have been encouraged to go by the festival atmosphere. And when you get that number of people taking drink there is always the potential for some issues."
AP Sports Writer Rob Harris in London contributed to this report.