Hordes of fans with painted faces and flags congregate outside a stadium. Wide-eyed youngsters soaking up the experience of their first tournament mingle with well-travelled older ones. Families and friends come together in fan zones in anticipation of an exciting contest. Laughter, revelry, banter… and then comes trouble. The songs take on sinister overtones. A rival group responds with nastier chants. Very soon, the hustle and bustle outside the stadium degenerates into a mini riot.
The grim reality of hooliganism in football resurfaced in France at the 2016 European Championship when English and French fans clashed in Marseille. They were tear-gassed and ‘tasered’ by the highly impatient local police. But that was not all.
Towards the end of the England-Russia match, a flare was launched from where Russian supporters watched. After the final whistle, Russian groups charged at English fans who were forced to climb barriers to escape. These were no ordinary, inebriated fans. These were organised hooligans as was evident from the street fights afterwards.
Topless Russian men in cut-off shorts, wearing mouth-guards, engaged in full-scale violence. Footballer Joey Barton, who played for Marseille, described how they “operated like a military group” and were wearing balaclavas and face masks while some had knuckle-dusters. Some hooligans even filmed the attack with head-mounted GoPro cameras. The chilling footage showed gangs charge at unsuspecting fans, throw furniture, punch an English fan to the ground and repeatedly kick him in the stomach.
For crowd trouble inside the stadium, UEFA, Europe’s apex football body, handed Russia a suspended disqualification (which is a last warning) along with a hefty fine.
The violence shocked most but some Russian leaders chose to brazen it out. MP Igor Lebedev, also a member of the executive committee of the Russian Football Union, tweeted: “Nothing wrong with fighting. Keep it up boys!” Vladimir Markin, a top police official, wrote, “The Europeans are surprised when they see a real man looking like a man should. They’re only used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades.”
Alexander Shprygin, head of the official Russian supporters group, travelled to France with the official team delegation, even staying at the team hotel. Back home, Shprygin, a friend of President Vladimir Putin, has been photographed giving the Nazi salute. No one’s saying why Shpyrgin was allowed to travel on official accreditation.
In the seminal book ‘Among The Thugs’, Bill Buford asks a very compelling question: “….Why do young males riot every Saturday? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hallucinogenic drugs, or behaved badly or rebelliously. Violence is their anti-social kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria that might be all the more powerful because it is generated by the body itself, with, I was convinced, many of the same addictive qualities that characterise synthetically-produced drugs.”
What started with England and Russia has now spread to other countries. Crowd violence is one memory Euro 2016 could have done without.