Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia's Sidelined Soccer-Fan Chief Says Police Cracking Down Ahead Of World Cup

Russian soccer-fan leader Aleksandr Shprygin holds a flag as he leaves Moscow with others fans for Euro 2016.
Russian soccer-fan leader Aleksandr Shprygin holds a flag as he leaves Moscow with others fans for Euro 2016.

MOSCOW -- It's Friday night at Brawler's Pub in southern Moscow, and Russia's most infamous soccer fan is tucking into a pot of tea, soberly rattling off developments that have effectively sidelined him and his hell-raising comrades.

It's a far cry from last summer, when Aleksandr Shprygin was given a hero's welcome upon his return to Russia from the violence-marred 2016 European Championships in France. Although he claims his innocence, his alleged role in brawls that broke out between Russian fans and their European counterparts earned Shprygin two deportations.

At the time, he embodied Russia's fighting spirit in the face of international economic sanctions imposed over the country's interference in Ukraine and the perception that the West was pushing its values on Moscow. Russian fandom drew strong international condemnation, but back home the brawlers won plaudits from even top officials.

Among those weighting in was Igor Lebedev, a deputy chairman of the State Duma and son of flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. "I don't see anything wrong with the fans fighting," he tweeted. "Quite the opposite. Well done guys. Keep it up!” Later he expressed bewilderment at politicians and bureaucrats who were denouncing Russian fans, saying: "We need to defend them, and they'll come home and we'll sort it out."

Deputy State Duma speaker Igor Lebedev (file photo)
Deputy State Duma speaker Igor Lebedev (file photo)

Indeed, after the tournament was over and Russia's gaze turned to the World Cup it will host in 2018, Shprygin found himself targeted by an apparent campaign to neuter him and the fan club he founded, the All-Russian Organization For Supporters. It is all part of what he calls a "harsh" state clampdown on fandom as part of an effort to prevent potential future soccer violence.

Keen to spruce up its image before a global audience tunes in for World Cup 2018, Russia is sending a message to fans that it will not tolerate the types of disturbances that took place in France.

On April 7, the State Duma finished drafting legislation that would beef up punishments for disorder in the stands, doubling fines to up to 20,000 rubles ($351) or threatening arrest of up to 15 days. It also threatens to impose stadium bans of up to seven years.

"In terms of police work here ahead of the Euros in France, the fan and supporter community did not feel any kind of action," Shprygin told RFE/RL recently. "But for 2018, they feel it. And what's more, it is constant."

He says that, since last autumn, the police have carried out early-morning house searches simultaneously at 20 to 30 addresses, seizing laptops, literature, and bringing people in for questioning. He says police have also begun zealously investigating prearranged hooligan fights and "nasty" chanting at matches.

June's FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, a prelude to the World Cup, provides a taste of things to come. Many hardcore fans, Shprygin says, have simply been denied "supporter passports," special fan IDs issued by Russian football authorities for upcoming tournaments. Those without them are effectively barred from attending.

In February, the Russian Football Union (RFU), the official governing body of Russian football, set up a new supporters council, filling the vacuum left behind by Shprygin's neutered fan organization. That month, former Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is president of the RFU, met directly with the council and spoke directly to fan chiefs, selling them on the idea of coming together to discuss problems associated with the sport.

Fall From Grace

Shprygin's sudden fall from grace began around a month after he was met at the airport by television cameras after Euro 2016.

Shprygin says he does not know who was behind the campaign against him, but he clearly believes its end goal was to shut down his brainchild, the All-Russian Organization for Supporters. The group, founded 10 years ago and known by its Russian acronym VOB, landed at the heart of the scandal in France when police stopped and detained the group's tour bus during its investigation into fan violence.

Shprygin was among 29 Russians deported after violence in Marseille left two England fans in comas. He denies guilt outright, claiming that security at the tournament in France was too lax and that he was deported and turned into a scapegoat because he drew attention to himself by avidly live-tweeting -- and ridiculing -- the detentions by French police.

Back home, Shprygin was lionized, but internationally he was decried as the figurehead of a worrying nexus between officialdom and far-right fan violence, charges he dismisses out of hand.

Shprygin (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in December 2010 at a ceremony for a killed soccer fan
Shprygin (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in December 2010 at a ceremony for a killed soccer fan

After the tournament, he says it was made clear to him that his scandal-tinged organization had to be removed from the RFU, where it was officially accredited. After initially declining to do this voluntarily, Shprygin says he was twice detained in September by masked police -- once near his home, and another time at an RFU conference.

The pro-Kremlin tabloid turned up at his dacha filming his family, while the offices of his organization were scrawled in graffiti. At one point his car was torched -- although he says this was related to a different dispute. On September 24, the RFU voted to exclude his group, and he says that as soon as he froze the group's activities, the pressure against him stopped.

For his part, Shprygin says he has long since given up hooliganism, having fought his last fight in Kyiv in 2005. He rejects the notion he holds far-right views -- albeit with odd logic. "What, if the waitress was a negro, would I not drink tea?" he asks. "It's absolutely not the case. I don't know who thought this up." He says a widely circulated photograph of him raising his arm in a Nazi-style salute at a concert in Kyiv was taken 15 years ago when he was messing about.

He is philosophical about his return to obscurity and recognizes that his prominent position was a PR nightmare for the future World Cup hosts.

"They [the Russian soccer authorities] defended us while the events in France were taking place. When we came back, something sharply changed a month later," he says. "I think this scandal with the fans in France got too serious at an international level. Russia had to react somehow ahead of the World Cup and take some measures."

"They had to do this," he says. "And we became hostages of this situation."

'Symbolic Step'

Pavel Klimenko, Eastern Europe coordinator for Fare, the Football Against Racism Network, said Shprygin's ouster was a "symbolic step" and that his organization is aware of the clampdown on Russia's rowdy fan sector. "Many hooligan leaders have spoken out about the pressure on them, which mainly manifests itself in informal talks with law enforcement."

"It is understandable that most leaders would have greater fear of the Russian security services than a desire to mess around during the Confederations Cup or World Cup," he says. "We know many rank-and-file hooligans were also invited to police stations to sign papers where they were warned not to organize or participate in mass disorder during the said tournaments."

Marc Bennetts, a Moscow-based journalist and author of Football Dinamo: Modern Russia And The People's Game, says he believes it is "unlikely there will be any large-scale hooligan violence."

An injured England fan is detained by police in Marseille on June 11, 2016, ahead of the Euro 2016 soccer match between England and Russia.
An injured England fan is detained by police in Marseille on June 11, 2016, ahead of the Euro 2016 soccer match between England and Russia.

"While many pro-Kremlin politicians won't have been too concerned at having the hooligans wreak havoc on the streets of Marseille, [President Vladimir] Putin will not want to see similar scenes in Russia during the World Cup," he said. "The tournament is a showcase event, and he will not want it ruined by hooligans rioting in central Moscow in front of the world's media."

Shprygin agreed with this sentiment, noting that only isolated incidents might be possible.

"If a drunk Englishman wearing the national strip goes off into the north Biryulovo industrial zone, for example, then naturally no one can guarantee that he won't have any problems with security," he says. "But these are isolated incidents. Overall, I think the approach of our police is in principle different from security. What's more, this tournament is a state goal."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.