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Explainer: Russia's Soccer Hooligan Problem

  • Tom Balmforth

An injured man is led away by French police in Marseille following clashes between Russia and England supporters after a 1-1 draw in Marseille on June 11.

An injured man is led away by French police in Marseille following clashes between Russia and England supporters after a 1-1 draw in Marseille on June 11.

MOSCOW -- Shocking footage from the French stadium after a 1-1 soccer draw between England and Russia on June 11 showed Russian fans storming a section full of England fans, raining down kicks and punches as England supporters fled. It was just the latest instance of fan violence in Marseille involving the English and Russians that marred the opening stages of the 2016 European Championship.

The level of Russian fan violence was such that Russia faces disciplinary action from governing body UEFA. Reports said Russian hooligans fought with unprecedented intensity and organization -- and that they had geared themselves up for violence with mouth guards, bandannas, martial-arts gloves, and even knives.

With Russia poised to host the World Cup just two years from now -- and battling to repair its sporting reputation after a massive doping scandal that still threatens its participation in this summer's Olympic games in Brazil -- RFE/RL takes a closer look at Russian hooliganism and what authorities are (or aren't) doing to rein in the country's rowdies.

Was a particular group of Russian ultras responsible for the violence in Marseille?


Marseille's chief prosecutor, Brice Robin, told a news conference on June 13 that a core of 150 Russian football fans was responsible for the violence. They were "well-prepared for ultrarapid, ultraviolent action," Robin added, "These are extremely well-trained people."

Football hooligans are usually divided by club, but the Russian football hooligans in Marseille reportedly hailed from various Russian clubs who had set their differences aside for the day. Pavel Klymenko, Eastern Europe development officer for the UEFA-backed Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), says the violence in Marseille was perpetrated by gangs from Spartak Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow, and to a lesser extent Zenit St. Petersburg. There were also hooligans from a lot of smaller, lower divisions, he adds.

The Russian football hooligans in Marseille reportedly hailed from various Russian clubs who had set their differences aside for the day.

The Russian football hooligans in Marseille reportedly hailed from various Russian clubs who had set their differences aside for the day.

Are Russian hooligans worse than other hooligans?

"I wouldn't say they're the worse," says Klymenko. "The hooligan problem is quite serious in pretty much all of Central and Eastern Europe. On a subcultural level, there is a rivalry on who are the toughest hooligans. The top teams now are Poland, Russia, and, of course, Serbia."

So what does that mean in practice?

The intensity of that "hooligan" rivalry has led to some of the worst violence taking place during matches involving teams from Central and Eastern Europe.

For instance, in 2010, an encounter between Italy and Serbia was abandoned after Serbian supporters fought police, threw flares onto the pitch, and tried to break barriers holding back fans from the pitch. At the 2012 European Championship, Russian fans were attacked by Polish hooligans in host city Warsaw. At a club level, this regional trend also prevails, although the scale of the violence is smaller. Last season, for instance, in December 2014, several French fans of the St. Etienne club were hospitalized after a mass brawl with knife-toting Ukrainian hooligans in Kyiv.

What have Russian authorities done to combat the problem?

Russia has actually cracked down pretty hard on fan violence at the club level, greatly reducing its visibility in the last several years. Before, different hooligan gangs, or "firms," representing different Russian football clubs, would ambush each other in the middle of cities, leading to mass brawls -- much like what was seen in Marseille over the weekend.

Nowadays in Russia, however, the police crackdown has largely forced hooligan gangs to prearrange fights outside of towns -- in forests, for instance, far from the public.

But Klymenko says that crackdown has not been supplemented by work to create a register of "hooligans and troublemakers in Russia," or actually to confront the problem head on.

An injured man is attended to by police in Marseille after the match between Russia and England.

An injured man is attended to by police in Marseille after the match between Russia and England.

So why Russia's problem at the international level?

Russia's domestic crackdown on football hooliganism has not been mirrored internationally. "Little has been done to prevent [recognized football hooligans] from traveling," says Klymenko.

An incident emerged on June 10 that illustrated this point, Klymenko says. The All-Russian Union of Supporters chartered a plane to Marseille from Russia for the June 11 match with England. When it arrived, however, French border guards turned away five Russian supporters whom Russia had allowed to travel but whom France deemed dangerous.

What do Russian officials say about hooliganism?

At the official level, Russia has mainly made the right noises about the need for action against hooliganism.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko on June 12 told R-Sport news agency that UEFA was right to launch disciplinary action against Russia following the weekend violence. "It's the right thing," he said. "There were flares, there was a flare gun, there had been clashes in the stands. It's necessary to sort all this out."

Nonetheless, some Russian officials sent other signals, with one actually leaping to the defense of the hooligans -- and even praising them.

Igor Lebedev, a deputy speaker of the Russian Duma for the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party and the son of party founder Vladimir Zhirinovsky, wrote on Twitter: "I don't see anything bad in the fans fighting. On the contrary, well done guys. Keep it up!"



Lebedev, who is also on the executive committee of the Russian Football Union, repeated this message in other Tweets: "I don't understand those politicians and bureaucrats who are now denouncing our fans. We need to defend them, and they'll come home and we'll sort it out."

Vladimir Markin, spokesman for Russia's powerful Investigative Committee, suggested the problem is not with Russian hooligans but rather with French police who, having grown accustomed to dealing with gay-pride events, have forgotten how to handle "real" Russian men.

"A proper man as he's meant to be comes as an amazement to them. They're used to seeing the 'men' at gay parades..."

Is this all a serious cause for concern, given that Russia is hosting the World Cup in 2018?

Klymenko sounds confident that Russia will have a grip on things in 2018.

"The hooligans in Russia are dealt with in far more repressive ways and manners by the local police and authorities," he says. "They engage in serious violence when they go away, and the controls are lax and the authorities don't prevent them traveling away. Domestically, they were pushed out to the forest. For 2018, you can imagine the Russian repressive machine will suppress any hooliganism well in advance."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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