What’s the price of an England shirt? Every parent knows it’s too much, but you buy them anyway because your kids love football as much as you love them. When they get a bit older they buy their own tops, and go to matches on their own and even travel abroad. They’re grown up, after all. Then, in Marseille last weekend—when England played their first match of the 2016 UEFA European Championship, against Russia—they find out there’s a blood price to be paid too.
My son, his girlfriend and eight of their mates were walking down a quiet street in Marseille on Saturday. Walking and talking, not running and shouting. Wearing England shirts, drinking from bottles of water not chugging beers.
Then six Russians in their late thirties overtook them. They stopped by my son’s friend Josh, who was at the head of the group, and they punched him hard in the head. He was knocked out. Another of my son’s friends, Jack, tried to cradle Josh’s head as he lay on the cobbles. But they were intent on doing real damage. They tried to kick and stamp on Josh’s head and when thwarted by Jack they settled for kicking him in the head instead. They worked their way through the group. A volley of punches from the Russians and another one was unconscious too, his mouth welling with blood. Virtually all of the group were battered and, as my son says, they were lucky that the Russians weren’t armed with bottles or weapons.
But they were unlucky too. Unlucky to be in a country that doesn’t regard football fans from England as citizens worthy and deserving of protection. The EU passports that they were all carrying were as much use as raised hands and a calm, peaceful tone. The violence at the championship this year has affected far too many fans—the incident after the game on Saturday, when English supporters climbed over fences in the stands in order to avoid violence, is another example of this.
I know all these boys. We drove them to football training on Tuesday and matches every Saturday. Saw them grow from kids to lads and now men. Watched their skills on the field grow, and their camaraderie and friendship off the pitch blossom. They have seen each other through university, apprenticeships, first loves and lasting ones. They’re not exceptional but they are loving, lovely and loveable—and to me they are the very “best of British.”
In 1961, facing the Cold War and the fear of a nuclear war, Robert Lowell wrote:
“A father’s no shield
for his child.”
I always picture him pacing the floor, cradling his baby, knowing his love can never be strong enough to offer absolute protection. Every parent knows the gap between what you seek and what you can offer. But in Europe, our Europe, of which I am an enthusiastic supporter? Policing for a match at which Russian “ultras” had promised violence was at a minimal level. There were riot police to choke fans with tear gas, but no police on the Metro on the way to the match. And none on the way back either, when the Metro had been closed and England fans had to walk back through the city.
“We were lucky, Dad,” my son tells me from Barcelona, where he works. “We got back safely.”
Lucky is not the word. France should be feeling lucky that its team hasn’t been chucked out of the tournament for its colossal failures in safety. Russia should be feeling lucky that it has not been stripped of hosting the 2018 World Cup over the behaviour of its fans. Because it’s all about the money now. That’s the true price of an England shirt—the knowledge that my son, his girlfriend and their friends now have. The games go on because losing money matters more than losing matches—even lives.