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Who Are This New Breed of Russian Football Fans?

  • As pale as the Englishmen, as fit as the French -- but better organised than both
  • They've been around for a while -- but with rising Russian living standards they can now afford to travel

Watching the story, and the images on television of football hooliganismfrom Marseille unfold between Friday night and Monday morning was hardly an uplifting experience, not least because of how one version so quickly eviscerated all the others.

The early pictures and the commentary that went with them told of the shameful return to vintage form of the England football team’s travelling supporters. Here we were, so it seemed, right back in the 1980s: the early-morning drinking, the trashing of businesses and the outbreaks of hand-to-hand combat between our flabby white islanders and the tougher, fitter natives – in this case, some of the hard men of the sprawling Marseille gangland.

<figcaption>The Russians</figcaption>
The Russians

By Saturday afternoon, however, a new warrior detachment entered the fray in the shape of the Russians, as pale as the English, but demonstrably fitter and better equipped. And in the aftermath of the actual match – though it is hard to recall now that two national teams playing football was the point of the whole exercise – things really kicked off, when the Russians clambered over barriers to ambush their foes in the stadium.

There was a sense – baffling to those of us unversed in match lore – that starting the fighting while still in the stadium was unfair and that the French police, condemned for overzealousness outside the ground, had now been asleep on the job. But suddenly the English were the victims. Their excesses of the previous 24 hours were forgotten in the headlong rush to blame the Russians. Not only had their team had the nerve to score a late equaliser, but their fans’ brand of quasi-military thuggishness, including inside the ground, had apparently broken some unwritten rule.

At least the head of Britain’s Euro 2016 policing operation, Mark Roberts, seemed to think so. But I wonder how different their “tooling up” and their “sort of uniforms” really are from features of our own footballing past. Those of us who just about recall Millwall supporters at the height of their notoriety or the sharp suits and fighting prowess of Chelsea’s Headhunters will perhaps not be as shocked as we should have been. (A gentler breed of Chelsea fans now wear fur hats in a nod to their Russian owner.)

The English
The English

But the whole thing only reinforced – among Britons, at least – the stereotype of Russians as no-holds-barred barbarians. Their discipline and organisation also suggested an extra layer of militarism – a reminder, as it were, of Russia’s operations not so long ago in Ukraine.

What is more, in some of their chanting, it appeared the Russians were also putting two fingers up, not just to their England footballing rivals, but also to Europe. The damage was compounded when Igor Lebedev, a Russian national football official and MP, said it was normal for fans to fight and even egged them on. “Well done lads,” he tweeted, “keep it up!”

In all this, however, it is worth considering the wider context. The first is that Lebedev is a member of the nationalist LDP. The Russian sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, struck a different tone and condemned the violence, saying the fans had “brought shame on their country”. Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup, he would have been aware – is not uncontested.

The second is that 30 years ago it would have been almost unthinkable for Russian sports fans to travel; even 20 years ago, it was still a novelty to get a passport and foreign travel was expensive. It is only recently that costs have come down; freedom to travel is more positive than negative, even if some undesirable elements take advantage.

And the third is that what fuels the violence of – some of – today’s Russian football supporters may not be a million miles from the wellspring that feeds the excesses of some England fans. A frustration with their lot at home, and an identification with the national team that makes every triumph and defeat an extension of their own ambitions. Plus, most of these young Russian men will have military experience, as conscription is only starting to be phased out.

During a journalistic trip to Moscow in the early 2000s, I met an aide to the relatively new President Putin, whose tasks included trying to devise ways of fostering a new sense of national pride among citizens who saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a humiliating defeat. At one point, the official delved into a side cupboard and pulled out a bag. Inside was a “kit” for Russian football fans. It included a T-shirt with the Russian flag and crest, a baseball cap emblazoned with “Rossiya”, a sheet with the words to the (first post-Soviet) national anthem, and a small Russian flag.

The “kit” was almost sweet in its innocence, and much has happened since then. Now Russia has been fined €150,000 and has been told any further violence will result in its disqualification. But the apparently new breed of Russian football fan in action in Marseille may be better understood as a regrettable stage in the evolution of sporting self-assertion, than as the vicious shape of things to come.

 



Source: The Guardian
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