England terrorist plot revealed
England's 1998 World Cup squad escaped being the victims of a terrorist attack in France, after a plan to blow-up the Three Lions' bench during their opening group game was foiled. The shocking revelation will ensure the FA are ultra-protective toward their expensive 23-man squad for the finals in South Africa next summer.
ESPN Soccernet has spoken to both Glenn Hoddle, who was manager at the time, and the FA's head of communications David Davies, about the shock events in Marseille before England's opening World Cup tie. These events had been kept secret up until now.
Hoddle was informed "years later" of a plot to blow up England's substitutes as they sat on the bench watching colleagues compete against Tunisia in Marseilles in June 1998.
Davies, the Football Association's head of communications at the time, revealed that the England camp, apart from the manager, players, and media knew about the chilling threats on the eve of the big World Cup tie.
David Beckham and Michael Owen were on the star-studded bench along with Gary Neville, Paul Merson, Steve McManaman, Nigel Martyn and Rob Lee. Manager Hoddle and his senior backroom staff were sitting nearby.
Goals from skipper Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes gave England a comfortable 2-0 victory. Yet, no-one in the jubilant England party had the slightest notion that a massive security operation was in full swing to prevent what would have been one of the most appalling tragedies in football history.
From what Hoddle and Davies have now disclosed, in breaking world football's best kept secret, it is plain that the FA and its skilled security squad were facing potential carnage.
"We were in Marseille for a World Cup qualifier in 1998, and there had been lots of trouble on the streets on the night before the game," Hoddle told ESPN Soccernet.
"I didn't know at the time, but I was told years later that certain people were trying to blow up the England substitute's bench.
"I knew nothing about it at the time. Yes, I was surprised when I was told. Shocked actually! I know nothing more than that. It didn't cross my mind that something like that was happening."
Davies detailed what he was aware of at the time, admitting he had never spoken about it until now. Davies told ESPN Soccernet: "Sir Brian Hayes was the FA's appointed head of security during the World Cup finals in France, and before the opening match in Marseilles he alerted us to the possibility of a major security problem.
"We knew that the England team had been targeted, but not the specifics. But I know we had security concerns in Marseilles, and the security team we had there advised us.
"The main thrust of the attention was the build up around the streets the night before the game, and the violence that occurred. There was no media coverage, or knowledge of any security alert concerning the England team at the time.
"Clearly, when there is a major tournament involving England, such as the World Cup, it is imperative to have the best possible security team in place, and that is exactly what we had at the time."
Neither Hoddle nor Davies was able to shed light on who was precisely behind the crime or how it was so miraculously foiled. The catastrophe was averted, and both were pleased to draw the line there.
England's team that day was: David Seaman, Sol Campbell, Graeme Le Saux, Tony Adams, Gareth Southgate, Paul Ince, David Batty, Darren Anderton, Paul Scholes, Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham. Owen replaced Sheringham in the 85th minute.
Fierce battles had raged between rival supporters long before the match. Windows of vehicles displaying British number-plates were bricked and smashed bottles littered the streets and gutters. Violence and street fighting continued after the match with riot police using tear gas and snarling dogs in a desperate battle to take control. A large number of supporters were injured and arrested.
ESPN Soccernet is also aware of a letter sent by the FA last month to the head of a Spanish security company who had warned of a serious kidnap threat to Premiership footballers visiting Southern Spain, particularly the Costa del Sol.
The letter added that Spain's security network had learnt that a current prominent England footballer had been a specific target for an East European gang whose abduction plans were abandoned at the last minute. ESPN Soccernet knows the name of the England star named in the letter, but have chosen not to publish it for security reasons.
The FA letter, which was sent on behalf of chief executive Ian Watmore, said: "The Football Association employ a number of ex-senior police officers who travel with international and club sides playing abroad. Pre-match security visits are made to all venues. There is a well-established liaison with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, NCIS and local police forces. Risk assessments are compiled prior to events. Football Association staff are fully aware of the security department, and will communicate any information or concerns directly by email or telephone. Your correspondence has been noted by the Security Department."
Major security issues continue to preoccupy the FA's top brass, with preparations well under way for next year's World Cup in South Africa, starting on June 11.
The South African government has assured FIFA that 41,000 dedicated police officers, wearing heavy-duty body armour, will be on duty throughout the four-week extravaganza, plus 40 helicopters, ten water-cannons, high-tech monitoring equipment to receive live footage from airplanes and other cameras, 100 high-speed vehicles patrolling motorways, and intense security around FIFA headquarters, hotels, restaurants, car parks, and tourist venues.
In addition, South Africa security chiefs are already working closely with international agencies to gather intelligence with specific focus on border safety and ports of entry.
It represents the most comprehensive security operation world sport has ever witnessed and emphasises the desire to ensure there is no repeat of what might have occurred in Marseille.