“I’m going to give some free advice to the guys that might come here in 2018. If you come to this country with a sword, you will die by that sword,” a BBC documentary on Russian football hooliganism captures a fan, allegedly a hooligan, bragging at the camera. “For some it (World Cup) will be a celebration of football, for others it will be a festival of violence,” warns another, without batting an eyelid.
Rewind to June 2016 in Marseille, when about 200 Russian ultras, wearing MMA (mixed martial arts) gloves and gum shields, laid into English fans ahead of the Russia-England Euro fixture. Two English fans had been beaten into coma and the lives of three others hung in the balance. Thirty others were taken to hospital while more than 100 had been injured. An England supporter had his Achilles tendon sliced. Brice Robin, the Marseille prosecutor, all but compared the Russian thugs to a mini army, using words like “well-trained, hyper-rapid and hyper-violent”.
Aleksandr Shprygin, who went to France as the leader of the Russian football supporters’ association, was reportedly at the front of the ‘battle’. The alleged mastermind of it, Vasily ‘the Killer’ Stepanov, wasn’t present at the scene of the crime. Back in Russia, the die-hard Spartak Moscow fan and arguably the most feared ex-football hooligan in the country, was by his wife’s side, as the couple welcomed their fifth child.
The ‘battle of Marseille’ has become the reference point to describe Russian football hooligans of late. It was sort of their ‘crowning glory’, a la Heysel for English louts. Compared to other parts of Europe, football hooliganism in Russia is relatively new. It started in its organised form only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Russians took a leaf out of the English book and set up a firm-based structure, but we will come to that later.
In 2010, Vladimir Putin stood in front of a cemetery, as the ultras mourned the killing of a Spartak Moscow fan by North Caucasus migrants. A backlash was due and even Putin was stunned by the severity of it. The Russian President held a meeting with the firm leaders, while some Western media outlets raised suspicion about a ‘pact’ between the ruling party and the football ultras.
But make no mistake, Putin won’t allow anyone to dent his showpiece. The hooligans are facing unprecedented crackdowns. Shprygin was arrested and his supporters’ association has been disbanded. Other known faces have been rounded up as well. Russian football fans now get a list of dos and don’ts when they turn up for their respective club matches. Punishment ranges from stadium bans to jail terms. Drinking in a public place is banned and ticket touting would be dealt with heavy fines. To intimidate the thugs, the Russian riot police was also seen doing drills with new sub-machine guns.
There’s an apprehension that the firms might use teenagers as the frontline of violence during the World Cup. Children associated with rival clubs are now reportedly getting lessons in combat skill, with videos purportedly capturing mass brawls between ‘gangs’ of kids.
To be fair though, there’s more than a hint of exaggeration in some reportage. To start with, hooliganism is not a Russian football problem, it’s a football problem. English hooligans championed it in the 1970s and 80s. Even now, thuggery in English football rears its ugly head now and then.
In March this year, chaos returned to the Premier League, as a group of West Ham United fans invaded the London Stadium pitch, knocked a female steward to the ground and turned its ire towards club co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold. ‘Sack the board,’ the irate mob chanted. The Hammers lost to Burnley and went deeper in the relegation scrap mire. The co-owners had to be escorted to safety.
West Ham eventually survived the drop but that’s a different story. Club captain Mark Noble, who chased a pitch invader, later spoke about the toxic atmosphere inside the stadium. A so-called fan stood on the pitch, holding a corner flag aloft. Police registered cases of assault.
Mind, this was happening almost three decades after The Football Spectators Act 1989 was set out. Subsequent amendments to it have tightened the noose. But football hooliganism still exists in England, although things have improved drastically over the past 20-odd years.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, football hooliganism had earned the sobriquet; ‘English Disease’. In the ‘70s, at least 24 firms associated with different clubs in the league were at the forefront of football violence. In 1974, during an FA Cup quarterfinal between Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest, the Gremlins (Toon hardcores) attacked Forest midfielder Dave Serella. Heysel, however, witnessed the peak of notoriety.
On May 29, 1985, 39 Juventus fans lost their lives during the European Cup final between the Italian giants and Liverpool at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. The Merseyside hooligans overpowered the Belgian police and caused mayhem. Uefa banned all English clubs from European competitions till 1990.
Just before that came the Hillsborough disaster on April 15, 1989. A tally of 96 dead and 766 injured changed English football forever. The Conservative government headed by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cracked the whip. The Taylor Report recommended all-seater stadiums in the top division. The Football Spectators Act 1989 made identity cards for fans mandatory. With the advent of the Premier League in 1992, the clubs also decided to ditch the firms and the ultras. As TV coverage took it to every nook and cranny of the globe, making the Premier League football’s most popular competition, the clubs increased ticket prices changed the crowd-culture inside the stadium. For example, in the mid-1980s, a Manchester United fan could have watched a club fixture at Old Trafford for £2 (less than Rs 50 by the 1980s exchange rate). Now a Stretford End Upper ticket costs £40 (Rs 3,600 approx at the present exchange rate) for a Premier League game.
Other top European leagues took a cue from their English counterpart. La Liga managed to tighten control over the Madrid ultras and the Malaga hooligans. Serie A also, to some extent, reined in the Italian criminal syndicates that used to have big influence over calcio (football).
However, in lesser leagues, away from the global media glare, hooliganism remains a persistent menace. South American football often witnesses militia-style violence. But what separates the Russian thugs from others is that they are fitness fanatics. “They don’t like drugs, alcohol. They’re all in the gym,” Elena Bykova, the producer of an all-hooligan cast film, was quoted as saying by The New York Times. The new generation of the Russian football hooligans ‘train in the woods’, do fist fights, learn martial arts, visit boxing rings and wrestling arenas. In fact, after the Soviet Union’s disintegration, poor youths, who had boxing and wrestling to fall back on for succor, flooded the firms.
There’s, too, a xenophobic side to Russian hooliganism. It has coincided with the reported rise of neo-Nazism there. Recently, Fifa fined the Russian FA, following up on the racist chants from fans towards France players during an international friendly at St Petersburg. In January, Spartak Moscow tweeted a video of some black players from the club training in sunny conditions with a message that was translated as, “see how the chocolates melt in the sun”. Xenophobia and homophobia had been very much part of the English football fan-culture as well in the 1980s, as John Barnes and Viv Anderson would attest. The Kick It Out campaign, however, has played a huge role in reducing it.
In Russia also, people like Robert Ustain, a CSKA Moscow faithful, have been working behind the scenes to make Russian football better off the pitch. Ustain has a team that records racist abuse and violence and reports them to the authorities. “We are opposing not the nicest guys in the world. But we have come too far and even if something bad happens to me, there are people who will take over,” Ustain once said in an AFP interview.
And therein lies the silver lining. For every Aleksandr Shprygin or Vasily Stepanov, football will always throw up a Robert Ustain. Fans going to Russia will also carry the authorities’ assurance of a smooth football festival.