“Three blind men are presented with an elephant and asked to decipher what it is. The first one walks towards it with his arms outstretched. With both hands, he pushes its solid flank.
“It is a brick wall before me” is his perception.
The second approaches, wraps his arm around one of the elephant’s sturdy legs and says:
“I have a tree before me.”
The third blind man grasps the elephant by its trunk, and thinks
“It’s a snake.”
- Indian proverb
I’ve been meaning to tell you this for ages…
A very good friend of mine knows a swimmer, he plays five-a-side football with him. He used to be a really serious swimmer, he’s even represented the UK at the Commonwealth Games. According to my very good friend, like a lot of swimmers he’s well over six feet tall and he still keeps himself in very good shape. Like lots of five-a-side players he is also into competitive football and he was over the moon when he got allocated two World Cup tickets to watch England play in Marseille, at France ’98.
In the run-up to the tournament the tabloids and broadsheets both had articles about the possibility of our fans misbehaving and a lot of people were worried about hooliganism – there had been the five-year European ban on all English teams after Heysel and we didn’t want ‘Category C’ supporters organising trouble, because they might stop England being allowed to play abroad or host an international competition.
My good friend, whose name is Syd by the way, says our swimmer has never been involved in football violence and is dead against it. He planned on going to France with his mate who also loved football, and also hated violence. They were really excited at the prospect of the first time either one of them would get to see their national team play abroad.
Apparently the swimmer’s mate was overweight and had a crew cut, so while the media had everyone a bit on edge about scary hooligans battling on the streets of France, the two of them arrived at the airport looking like a 6’ 5” muscleman and a fat skinhead.
Just like all the other fans they had their passports taken for checks, they got asked what teams they supported and if they’d ever been in any trouble. Both of them said ‘no’, which was true.
They stayed sober on the flight, unlike almost everybody else, and when they arrived in Marseille they stayed away from the main English contingent in town. Half the passengers on the plane were already pissed and rowdy, and the swimmer and his mate planned on having a fairly calm morning. It was already thirty five degrees, and there’d be plenty of time for drinking, during and after the match, which was against Tunisia. When the airport coach dropped them off they left the main pack of England supporters and headed for the Old Town. They weren’t wearing England colours and hoped they could blend in with the international types that had turned up from all over the world.
They found a small café down a quiet back street at the bottom of a long road, and it only had locals in it so they went in for a snack. When the waitress arrived to take their order the first thing the swimmer said was: ‘Do you speak English?’ She flinched a bit and a lot of the clientele looked up. The swimmer tried to look as innocent and harmless as he could but heads were twitching and the locals were whispering among themselves, checking out the two big English guys.
They were really keen to distance themselves from any negative preconceptions of England fans that the locals might have, so they weren’t even going to drink alcohol. The swimmer used his politest of voices to order a coffee, an orange juice, a ham sandwich and a cheese croissant, mixing English with his rubbish schoolboy French.
Syd tells me the moment the words left the swimmer’s mouth, everyone in the café heard this loud smash of glass breaking in the street. The whole place froze for a second. The waitress left and the swimmer tried not to look threatening to any of the locals while everyone spent a few seconds hoping the commotion outside was over. It wasn’t. A bottle broke on the pavement, then another from the left of the window, then another, and then a small rock bounced off a table on their right hand side. There was shouting in English from somewhere and the swimmer and his mate were shifting in their seats, just like half the café’s customers. It was kicking off outside.
The shouting got louder and they heard what they thought was a whole window being put through and all they could think of doing was to act as if nothing was happening, so they just sat still. Then two blokes ran past the window, screaming something in French and carrying a big plank of wood, and after a few seconds they ran back again, without the plank, getting chased by England fans who looked out for blood.
Apparently when he talks about it, the swimmer says it was like the end of ‘Carry On Up the Kyber’: The bit where the English gentry are having a dinner party, with full evening dress and fancy food and a quartet playing classical music. In the film, the Burpas are attacking the outside of the fort with rifles and cannons and plaster is falling from the ceiling on top of the dinner table but they all ignore it and the band plays on. They finish their dinner and pretend that nothing’s happening while the carnage is going on outside.
The swimmer sat there wondering what to do next as a full pitched battle escalated out in the street. People were screaming, plastic chairs and bottles were flying everywhere, sirens were going off and there was a massive crash and the sound of breaking glass as one of the café windows got shattered. A smoke grenade came through the hole and went off, CS gas went everywhere and the riot police were stomping around outside, trying to arrest everybody.
The café filled with tear gas and people were coughing and spluttering, holding their mouths, desperate to get into the fresh air. While he was choking and panicking, the swimmer grabbed his jacket and covered his eyes and headed for the front door. He couldn’t see properly through his tears so he struggled to find it while his blinded mate held onto the back of his T-shirt.
People scattered to avoid the fumes, some went out a back door and the swimmer got to the front door, still covering his face with his jacket. He couldn’t inhale. He burst out the door into the chaos going off outside, dropped his jacket from his face and grimaced as he tried to gasp some clean air into his lungs.
Not far away, just up the road at the top of the hill, a photo got taken through a zoom lens. The picture had the swimmer dead centre. He looked like he was wide-eyed and screaming, his big chest and arms were tense and his face was twisted snarling as riot police stormed in from his right. On his left hand side someone was throwing a small rock and in front of him someone was running down the hill waving a bottle of beer, about to throw it. There was an unconscious Tunisian fan right at his feet, bleeding from the head.
So when the swimmer finally got home to England a couple of days later, he was shown the photo of himself on the front page of The Sun newspaper. There for millions to see – which included his wife, his mum, and his boss - was a picture of him running out of the front door of the café next to the smoking broken window. He had crazy eyes and a beetroot face and he was tensing his whole torso and looked like he was screaming with rage, looking ready to attack anyone who came near him. The headline announced café carnage, and the shame of English football hooligans on tour.
He’d only gone in for a coffee.
I PROMISE YOU THAT TO THE BEST OF MY KNOWLEDGE, SO FAR THIS STORY IS ENTIRELY TRUE.