My friend and I were too excited to start planning games to Marseilles, since France is hosting the Euro 2016. However, in light of all the recent terrorist attacks and the intense football rivalry riot that broke out after Russia vs. England, everyone told me not to go. The other two girls that were planning on coming with me backed out. My school sent out emails declaring euro2016 as a danger zone. For a split second, I wondered if maybe it would be smarter to avoid the crazy football fans and stadiums that had now become perfect targets for terrorist attacks.
But I loved football and I didn’t want to miss out on the experience. So, like so many other adventures I’ve embarked on, I took the risk. And I didn’t regret it for a second.
I’ve heard that football culture in Europe is a religion. And I saw it as soon as I stepped out of the train station. Marseilles was a clash of Iceland blue and Hungarian red. Groups of fans doused in flags, scarves, face paint chanted their national anthems or simply “Allez, allez, allez” down the streets.
I was with two other guy friends, one wearing an Iceland jersey. Every time we passed a boisterous group of Hungarians, he was teased a little. He was embraced in a sea of red and passed around and hugged as they sang their national anthem. Someone even dashed by and striped his cheek with a Hungarian flag face paint roller.
People were everywhere. They were loud. They were unruly. I was grabbed and groped several times. I’d never heard the word “bella,” so often in one day. Fans kicked footballs around in the streets. Kids waved vivid flags in the air. I loved it.
At one point before the game, a group of Hungarian men approached us. He asked if I was Hungarian. I was wearing black so it was impossible to tell if I was one side or the other, but my red dip-died hair made them think I was a supporter. When I told him no, he quickly embraced us and told us about the beauty of his country. He passed around his blackberry “spirits” that was aged 2013 and had an alcohol content of 50%. I was embraced in bisous and compliments and he tagged my face with Hungarian flag face paint.
Getting into the game was a hilarious struggle. No drinks, food, body products, or pretty much anything was allowed through the gates. My friends and I had to throw a lot of things away. Everyone was patted down before finally being allowed to enter. My security guard let me keep a couple of “prohibited” items after calling me “bella” several times. What I don’t understand though, is how, during the game, the Hungarian side of the stadium managed to smuggle in flares. At several points in the game, flares were thrown onto the field or illuminated parts of the sea of red and green.
The stadium was beautiful . Football fans from all over the world donned their favorite jerseys, sang their national anthems, enjoyed the sunshine that spilled into the Stade Valédrome.
The game was a great one. Iceland scored on a penalty kick and it was still 1-0 in the last 5 minutes of the game. Hungary, however, managed to score a point at the last minute for a tie.
I’m so glad I decided to go. Certainly, I had to deal with some scary or unpleasant road bumps. For example, in broad daylight and two other men walking with me, a male passerby still managed to grab my waist and grope me. Or near the train station, another man stroked his hand against my cheek as I walked by and murmured something in French. We stepped on a lot of broken glass from car windows that had been busted. But we were smart about our surroundings and knew Marseilles had a reputation as a rough city. We were prepped to expect such things and to be extra careful. But I think that rough character gives Marseilles an authentic attraction, the old buildings tagged with graffiti create an artistic contrast where art meets the reality of society and the port culture creates a mix of African, French, and Middle Eastern urbanity.
It’s all about being smart. I wasn’t by myself at night in Marseilles. I didn’t dink too much of the alcohol I was offered and kept my wits about me. And I was aware of my surroundings. In the end, it was an amazing day. An amazing experience. The American football scene can’t touch the liveliness of European football. I’m glad I didn’t let my fear keep me from going. I truly understand now that you only regret the things you don’t do.