A generally cheery man, Gareth Southgate grinned widest when he was asked about England’s previous encounter with Tunisia, whom they meet on Monday, in the 1998 World Cup. “I remember that day very clearly, it was one of the happiest days on my career,” he said.
There were reasons for Southgate’s fond commemoration of that day — it was England’s first World Cup match in eight years, he was making his World Cup debut, and at the end of it, he played an influential role in England’s canter over their low-rung adversaries. Most of Marseille, though, might not remember the day, or the ones leading to match day, with particular fondness.
For them, it’s a ghastly reminder of tear gas and beer bottles, flag burning and baton charging, burnt cars and petrol bombs, when England fans rioted with Tunisian counterparts for eight hours the day before the match.
There are several version about who sparked it. England fans swear they were provoked by Tunisian supporters — there were thousands of north African migrants supporting Tunisia in the port city — who began flinging empty beer cans and bottles. The Tunisians allege ‘tanked-up’ English fans began racially abusing them and burning Tunisian flags. What ensued was mayhem, which left 50-odd supporters of both sides injured, some needing serious surgeries while one England fan had his throat slit, according to a BBC report.
An embarrassed prime minister Tony Blair made an unrehearsed speech on television, pleading the fans to remain unprovoked and blasting the trouble-weavers, calling them a “disgrace to the country”. The sports minister called them a “moronic minority ruining England’s popularity abroad”. FIFA issued a stern warning of cancelling England’s participation if trouble brewed further, and understandably security was escalated on match day, which saw its share of violence outside the stadium, on the beach where fans were watching the game, though police in full riot gear ensured that the scuffle remained just a scuffle.
The incidents further maligned the reputation of travelling English fans, snidely called hoolies, and the headline of a French newspaper the day after the riot flashed, “A country of idiots.” But it was not as if Tunisian supporters were tranquil. On the contrary, they have hooligan-like notoriety in unleashing violence, both on the streets and the football pitch. Every season, hundreds of policemen are deployed for matches between local rivals Sfaxien and Club Bizertin, and sometimes the matches are held behind closed doors to keep off the ultras. But there were incidents wherein they’ve managed to breach the security and invade the pitch. It peaked during the autocratic days of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In fact, the first voice of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ against him came during a football match. In 2005, during the Tunisian Cup final, fans shouted anti-Ben Ali slogans and insulted his son, Chiboub, who attended the match and was forced to leave prematurely. Of course, the most poignant image of the revolution, as also the Arab Spring, was of a 26-year-old street vendor self-immolating. The bloody revolution lasted a year, claiming 300-odd lives and leaving thousands homeless, before Ali was toppled and the country’s economy as well as football, which was suppressed, took an upturn in subsequent years. However, the country is still susceptible to bursts of violence.
Journalist Omar Almasri writes in Sabotage Times: “In football, the public find a catharsis, a venting out of all their angst, for Tunisia is still troubled, economically backward and limping back to its legs from years of misgovernance. They express their frustration in the stadium. So football is a big symbol and hope. It always was, and is even bigger now.”
So despite the distance — nearly 5,000km between Volgograd and Tunis, Tunisia’s capital —nearly 10,000 supporters have travelled to Russia. Conversely, only 2,500 have flown from England, though there would be presumably more supporters on the ground. And of course, some of them promise to make as much sound as “50,000” supporters.
But the numbers won’t matter if tempers fray between the expectant fans of both sides —Tunisia’s fans will be buoyed as they return to the World Cup after two decades while England’s are sensing a resurgence under Southgate. However, Tunisian Minister of Tourism Salma Elloumi Rekik has issued a stern warning for those that spark trouble in Russia, including hefty fine and imprisonment.
But there, obviously, will be a lot of noise, the chants and thrumming of the debrouka (a drum), waving giant Tunisian flags, their colourful chechia (headgear) glowering in the sun. Britain has also barred nearly 2,000 known troublemakers from travelling.
However, while fans promise to shed the needles of the past and put on their best behaviour, the Russian security forces are on their toes, given the venue’s proximity to the troubled North Caucasus region, the hotbed of insurgency, populated by several IS returnees. In 2013, twin suicide bombings at the Volgograd train station and on a local trolleybus killed 34.
None of the past scuffles or the present unease would bother the respective teams. Tunisia are plotting the big upset, one the coach Nabil Maâloul feels should “go down the history”. Southgate, meanwhile, is hoping for a repeat of that searingly hot day in Marseille, albeit without the violence that marred it.