It's been something of a lacklustre opening round to the European Championships. For most games you could potter towards a TV screen after about 85 minutes and still be in plenty of time to catch the significant action. As a spectacle, it's taking its sweet time to captivate us. A failed left-back (Gareth Bale) is joint top scorer with a forward (Alvaro Morata) who has just been bought by a club that previously sold him, so that he can be sold again.

In the absence of scintillating football, we have been desperate for a narrative. Most of the leading brands of European football have disappointed - Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Lewandowski have looked lost. So where are the significant personalities?

If you believe the media, then the leading figures are off the pitch and in the bars. The England match against Slovakia on Monday was preceded by dire warnings about 'Slovakian fans in England shirts' ready to cause violent mayhem.

A leading contestant for the dominant figure of the tournament would be 'Vasilly The Killer', one of the ultras who is, apparently, leading the charge to get the Russian team kicked out by Uefa. Or perhaps you'd choose Alexander Shprygin, another Ultra whose tournament sounds like the mnemonic for remembering Henry VIII's wives: arrived, was arrested, deported, returned, re-arrested, deported again.

GoPro footage posted by Russian football hooligan
GoPro footage posted by Russian football hooligan of violent scenes in Marseille Facebook

While the drunken fighting was appalling and the damage done to people, businesses and national reputations was dreadful, it was the press who grew most excited about it, with pages and pages of feverish reporting of blood-strewn terraces and peaceful bars torn apart by nylon-clad morons. The media was reporting, and fanning, the sense of confrontation and of a return to the dark days of Eighties hooliganism which peaked at Heysel in 1985. Those running battles are, we have been constantly told, 'overshadowing' the football. Look at the volume of coverage and you'd be amazed that the tournament had enough fans left standing to be able to carry on at all.

No journalist is an island and it is hard not to contextualise the drooling enthusiasm for the confrontations of European armies of neanderthals with the Euro referendum. The same newspaper titles which have spent years demonising the EU, are now demonising the nature of our engagement with the entire continent. The very nature of our relationship with our fellow Europeans is violent, brutish, and, perhaps, increasingly short.

Yet, in the terms of the conversations we're having, at least, it's not working. Far from overshadowing the football, the violence seems barely to have registered with the rest of us.


Data from the social media analysis company Impact Social looked at how much we, in the UK, are talking about violence, looking to see how many of the terms used by the media in relation to the football are being used in social media posts (the usual behemoths, but also forums and comments on open news sites). They looked for them all - fights, thugs, hooligan(s), clash, ambush, hospitalise, arrest and disqualification - and looked for how many were being aligned to #Euro2016, in the UK over the last two weeks, taking in 900,000 posts (and eliminating the commercial discussions, which, admittedly, takes out the malevolence of Ray Winstone and his betting).

Less than 10% of conversations touched on the fighting. People tweeted, posted and commented plentifully on the back page headlines about the games, but far, far less so on the front page headlines around those matches. There's plenty of chatter, especially on matchdays, but overwhelmingly on the games themselves, and the triumphs and troughs of Rooney, Bale and the rest.

So we're not, it seems, as preoccupied by the violence as the media. Even a rather flat tournament such as this gets our attention far more than the lurid headlines and the sheer volume of the coverage of the scraps. Are we inured to the violence? Has it become so commonplace? Probably not - the media still thinks it can shock us with the bloodbaths, after all.

More likely, we simply prefer to watch, and discuss, Cristiano Ronaldo's pout as yet another of his free kicks sail over the bar. Even that is better than a pot-bellied yob lobbing a bottle.