FIFA World Cup 2018: Russia won’t let hooligans ruin image
When Russia played England at the 2016 European Championship in a group game in Marseille, there was more action off the pitch than on it. Almost.
Russian football hooligans, with portable cameras strapped to their heads, attacked English fans ahead of the game, leading to chaos on the streets of Marseille. Around 150 Russian hooligans charged at them again after the match at the Stade Velodrome, leaving two England fans in a coma.
UEFA, Europe’s apex football body, handed Russia a suspended disqualification from the tournament along with a fine, while 50 perpetrators were deported.
The incidents in Marseille led to widespread fear over the World Cup that begins here on Thursday. The hooligans’ attack on a far larger group of English fans in Marseille was done with almost military-like precision. With many of them sporting Mixed Martial Arts gloves, their planned, coordinated attack made it clear that they were well-trained, as was described by Marseille chief prosecutor Brice Robin.
In 2017, the BBC released a documentary titled ‘Russia’s Hooligan Army’. The documentary, which showed a group of hooligans threatening violence against visiting fans, further deepened the sense of fear among fans in England. Coverage by other English and American media outlets hasn’t been any kinder.
However, in Russia, the film was met with widespread anger. The BBC was accused by Russian fans and the media of portraying one side of the story and ignoring local efforts to curb hooliganism.
‘Wall to Wall’
“There is a long-standing tradition among hooligans dating back to pre-Soviet times called ‘wall to wall’. It involves groups of well-trained young men arranging to meet in a forest or the countryside for hand-to-hand combat. They have no interest in engaging with outsiders. This is essentially what the BBC documentary focused on when trying to depict how violent football fans over here will be during the World Cup,” said Andrew Flint, a football journalist based in Tyumen, Russia. He added that British media organisations, in particular, ‘picked up on comments made by individuals who want to be heard’.
When this reporter reached out to Andrei Malosolov, former spokesperson of the Russian Football Union (RFU) and a founding member of the country’s national supporters’ club, he said he has had ‘endless questions about scary Russian fans’ since the Marseille incident.
Malosolov accused sections of the English and American media of frightening fans visiting Russia this summer. “A lot of the reports you read in the media from these two countries contain huge exaggerations. They are not just biased but also include complete untruths,” he said.
Malosolov’s accusations about fears being overblown may not be completely unfounded given the fact that Russian authorities have come down hard on football hooligans in the aftermath of Marseille.
Last year, the national supporters’ club that Malosolov helped found was forced to close. Its leader Aleksandr Shprygin has been under supervision of local authorities since members of the group publicly offered support to hooligans involved in the 2016 Euros.
According to Flint, law enforcement authorities have blacklisted some of the country’s most notorious hooligans from World Cup venues. Together with the Fan ID system for the tournament, the arrangement is expected to be effective in keeping the most violent elements away from stadia.
“Leaders of prominent fan groups have been hauled in by the Federal Security Service and threatened with imprisonment --- whether or not they actually transgress --- while they are also in regular and direct contact with all prominent fan groups and hooligans,” said Flint.
In an interview to news agency EFE, Alexey Sorokin, chief of local organising committee, had said that data of blacklisted individuals had been shared with various stakeholders of the World Cup.
During the build-up to the tournament, the biggest domestic games in Russia have also seen police take tight security measures to prevent flare-ups. “When I attended the CSKA vs Spartak Moscow derby last season, armed policemen had lined up outside the nearest metro stations hours before the game and were diverting opposing fans to different routes,” Flint said.
The World Cup will be a different beast but Russia’s recent crackdown on football violence won’t be good news to those wanting to cause trouble this summer.
Moreover, the importance of the World Cup for Russia’s image will not be lost on local fans, according to Malosolov. It should be a big enough motivation to prevent them from getting into trouble with the law. “This is a very important event for Russians. After all, it’s not just about the football itself. We all understand how much we stand to gain from tourism because of the World Cup. How we host the tournament will be an indicator of our well-being, our openness and hospitality. Which is why this is the most important image event in our history,” he said.
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