LYON, France — When football works, it works so well. On Sunday in beautiful Lyon, fans from at least four different countries poured like mercury through the city’s wide boulevards and narrow streets. There was an army of Albanians, waving their red-and-black flags, and pockets of Romanians dressed in bright yellow. There were handfuls of Slovaks, eager for their final group-stage match Monday in nearby Saint-Etienne. Then there were the English they will face, hundreds and then thousands of them, shirtless and drinking and belting out songs.
One group of English fans sat in the intermittent sun in the Place des Terreaux. They looked hard enough, tattooed and muscled, singing “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home.” But every time an Albanian group passed by, the English would salute them in song, and the two factions would come together and embrace, jumping up and down across the square. This happened for hours, and the only products of the meetings were smiles and more empty glasses.
For the English, after enduring the bloody Russian violence of Marseilles and the lesser flares with the French police in Lille, Lyon represented something like relief. They had one match to go before their almost certain advance to the knockout stages. Nobody was going to hurt them here. “This is how it should be,” one of them said.
There were still signs of leeriness among them, hard-earned by the things they saw in Marseilles. Out at dinner on Saturday night, I sat next to three English fans, chatty and generous. I asked if they had been in Marseilles, and one of them had been in the middle of the worst of it. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “Who goes to a football match wearing a gumshield and fighting gloves?”
The Russians had been swift and clinical, he said, supporting widely cited accounts that their Ultras had been military-like in their attacks. He gestured with his hands about us, at the plaza filled with outdoor tables, happy tourists eating and drinking in the warm night. “You could just be like this, and then they would steam in from there” — he pointed down one alley — “or there,” he said, pointing down another.
The English might have given birth to some significant percentage of football’s hooligan culture, but the most serious offenders have lost their passports. There is still a drunk and crimson presence that marauds with the team, and their menacing doesn’t exactly endear themselves to the locals especially. But most traveling English fans are harmless, middle-aged and just looking to escape for a little while. The majority of them, at least, aren’t what they used to be.
“We all have wives and kids,” one of my dinner companions said.
And for them, for that benign element of them, something has changed here in France. There is a fear in them that didn’t burden them before. They told me that they had learned to pick out Russian faces in a crowd and that they were nervous of any supposed fans wearing black T-shirts or combat pants. When they staked out territory outside pubs like the King Arthur in downtown Lyon, they circled each other habitually like elephants and knew the escape routes.
I spoke to about two dozen English supporters over the past two days, and I asked the same question over and over again: Presuming England qualify for the World Cup in 2018, would any of them risk going to Russia?
Now, surveying two dozen of the thousands here makes for an extremely unofficial poll, and two years is a long time to change minds. But every last one said they wouldn’t dream of making that trip. These were hard-core English fans. One had been to every World Cup and Euro since 1996; another had marked full attendance for 18 years. They all shook their heads.
“No chance,” one said.
“If they were that organized and brutal here,” another said, “imagine how they’ll be in Russia.”
One of my dinner companions said that he was already changing his plans. He had taken his adult son to the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, and he said that they couldn’t have had a better, more memorable time. When he came back, he promised to take his younger daughter to the next one. He’s since told her that he’s going to bring her to France instead, to watch England continue their run at the relative safety of Euro. “Russia, we’re going to give a miss,” he said.
At least two games left here, and the highest hopes call for three more. Then, when England and their fans finally do have to go home, we might have seen the last of many lions abroad for four years instead of the usual two. A Russian intermission is looming in between.