Euro 2016: Can French town Lens cope with influx of 50,000 fans?

    Story highlights

    • England plays Wales in Euro 2016 Thursday
    • Lens, population 34,190, hosts game
    • Up to 50,000 fans expected in Lens
    • Town has 10,000-capacity fan zone

    (CNN)It has its own Louvre museum, but the 50,000 people expected to descend on the small northern French town of Lens this week will be coming for a very different type of show.

    They will be there to watch England play British rival Wales in Euro 2016 -- a game that will attract worldwide scrutiny, for what happens both on and off the pitch.
      In truth, mainly off it -- England's presence at European soccer's showpiece tournament has already been accompanied by hooliganism.
      Outbreaks of violence prior to its opening fixture against Russia in Marseille prompted governing body UEFA to threaten disqualification of both nations if trouble occurs in future tournament matches.
      On Tuesday, Russia was handed a suspended ban from Euro 2016 -- in essence, a final warning.
      The French authorities' security planning has been further complicated by Russia's game with Slovakia on Wednesday in nearby Lille -- through which England fans will travel en route to Lens.
      CNN Map
      There will be 3,900 officers "mobilized" to ensure order. That's 1,400 more than will be used to marshal supporters for Thursday's match.
      Despite that security deployment there were tensions between Russian fans and a group of English and Welsh supporters in Lille Tuesday.
      The two groups exchanged insults and some items, including glasses and chairs, were thrown.

      Stadium bigger than town

      Lens' population is only 34,190, which is smaller than its soccer stadium.
      The Stade Bollaert-Delelis' capacity is 41,233, though for Euro 2016, UEFA has reduced it to 35,000. Even so, the town is likely to have its work cut out dealing with an influx of so many supporters, despite having a fan zone that can cater for up to 10,000 fans.
      Whenever England plays an international game abroad, it's followed by thousands of its supporters, despite the team's mediocre record at major events.
      Some, like Gary Briggs, have traveled to the 15th edition of the European Championship -- arguably the world's biggest football competition after the World Cup -- much like a tourist would visiting any foreign country.
      In a party of seven, Briggs watched Germany play Ukraine in Lille on June 12, and plans to see Russia's match there Wednesday, before traveling the 40 kilometers to Lens for the England game.
      It's taken over a year to plan this trip, he says. There were match tickets to buy, travel to be organized and hotel accommodation to be booked.
      His group is interested in watching elite international football, but also enjoys the pleasures of traveling abroad.
      But as events in Marseille have shown, other fans -- and not just English -- have a different idea of what foreign travel might entail in supporting their football team.

      Asking for trouble?

      England manager Roy Hodgson and team captain Wayne Rooney have already issued a video message on the English Football Association's television channel urging fans to stay out of trouble and not to travel to Lens if they don't have a ticket.
      Based on the experience of previous tournaments, there's a good chance that advice won't be heeded. A number of soccer fans interviewed by CNN questioned why such a small town had been chosen to stage the game.
      This isn't the first time England has played an international match in Lens -- in 1998, it faced Colombia in a World Cup game.
      Welshman Steve Davies was at that match, and said he was "amazed" by UEFA's choice of venue.
      "It just instinctively feels too small when such an influx is expected," he told CNN.
      However, after the violence in Marseille, UEFA told CNN in a statement: "There are no plans to change the venue, which has been confirmed after the draw in December 2015."
      In 1998, before arriving in Lens, Davies had watched matches in Paris, Nantes and St. Etienne. The night before traveling to Lens, he stayed in Lille.
      "Tensions in Lille were already a little high -- typical to the scenes you saw in Marseille -- with drunken singing outside bars and the odd skirmish with locals," he recalls.
      "On the day of the game it was poorly organized chaos at Lille train station, with not enough staff for the hordes of England fans wanting tickets to get to Lens.
      "There was very few English-speaking staff to help as well, which infuriated some of the more intoxicated 'Little Englanders.'"
      When Davies, now 48, finally arrived at Lens, he discovered it had been "turned into a police state for the day."
      He added: "There were snarling dogs and police everywhere but that was perhaps understandable given the trouble earlier in the tournament around England's game against Algeria in Marseille and the clashes with the German fans the week before in Lens."

      'A little bit worried'

      On Sunday, CNN interviewed two England fans who had already arrived in Lens after traveling north from Marseille, having watching the 1-1 draw with Russia.
      They didn't have tickets for Thursday's game, but were prepared to spend $275 if they could find any.
      Those two fans, who didn't want to give their names, described the decision to stage the game in Lens as "ridiculous."
      Those without tickets can watch the match in Lens' fan zone, which is located close to the train station in the town center.
      Security plan for Lens

      2,400 people will be mobilized to ensure security in Lens

      1,200 police officers; about 350 fire fighters and medical staff and paramedics; more than 850 private security agents

      Number of "spotters" to keep an eye on known trouble makers increased from six to nine per team

      Number of French riot police officers increased from five to seven per CRS squad

      20 more private security agents will be deployed on the Lens fan zone

      Specific controls will be implemented in Lille-Flandres train station and Lens train station to prevent the transport of alcohol

      Some of the roads in Lens roads will be closed on games day as early as 10 a.m.

      Maxime Pauchet's Café de Paris is one of several bars and shops that flank the fan zone -- his establishment is about 10 meters from it.
      He told CNN he was a "little bit worried" about what Thursday might bring.
      Davies, meanwhile, described Lens as a "two-street town."
      "The one in front of the train station and the one where the fan park will be, both funneling to a roundabout which leads to the park where the stadium is," he said.
      "There's very few bars or squares to really spread out a lot for incoming fans."
      Finding a bar to have a quick drink before the game in 1998 proved the least of Davies' worries.
      "The police had set up cordons at the end of these roads far from the stadium, preventing fans without tickets getting through.
      "The meeting point where I'd agreed to meet my friend and collect my ticket was now well within the cordon and I couldn't get through.
      "Luckily my mate's tall, and peering over one of the police lines he saw me and persuaded them to let me in.
      "There really wasn't a nice atmosphere building so I was glad to be out of it. I arrived in my seat just as the game kicked off with loads of fans still queuing to get in."

      'So small'

      Lens has already staged one Euro 2016 match between Albania and Switzerland, with rival fans mingling happily and drinking in the streets both before and after Saturday's game.
      "I think it (the fan zone) could be too small for the England game," Swiss fan Rolf Boss, who attended the match in Lens, before then moving on to the fan zone, told CNN.
      "The problem is Lens is so small."
      By way of contrast, in Paris the fan zone is positioned in acres of space next to the Eiffel Tower.
      So if you do happen to be in northern France this week, and are planning a visit to the Lens-Louvre museum, it might be a good idea to plan the timing of your trip wisely.

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