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From Hero To Hounded: Russian Soccer-Fans Head Under Fire

Aleksandr Shprygin, the controversial head of the All-Russian Supporters Association. (file photo)
Aleksandr Shprygin, the controversial head of the All-Russian Supporters Association. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Russia's official soccer fan association head credited with hooligan violence that marred this summer's Euro 2016 championships in France appears to have gone from hero to hounded at home.

In the course of just a few days, Aleksandr Shprygin has seen the All-Russian Supporters Association (ARSA) he leads excluded from the Russian Football Union (RFU), has been escorted away from a union conference by masked riot police, had his home and offices searched, and been questioned over his possible role in a January soccer-fan brawl in Moscow.

Now the controversial far-right leader of a fan base whose brawling during Euro 2016 was lauded by some nationalist politicians and made light of by President Vladimir Putin is claiming his vehicle has been torched by arsonists.

Shprygin, who was twice deported from France during fan violence at Euro 2016, tweeted pictures in the early hours of September 26 of what he claimed was his burning SUV, suggesting it was the "work of experts."

In comments to Russia's Sport Ekpress newspaper, Shprygin said he did not know if the torching of his vehicle was related to the drama that unfolded during the Russian Football Union conference on September 24, when he was taken by black-clad police from a bathroom in the Moscow Holiday Inn hotel where the event was held.

Police said the detention was part of an investigation into a mass fight between hooligans from the CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow football clubs on January 31. After his release, Shprygin wrote on Twitter that police had found nothing, and he denied taking part in the fight.

"There are no questions with regard to me or the organization," he wrote.

During the conference, the RFU voted to exclude Shprygin's ARSA, which was at the center of Russian fan violence and had two of its members jailed over violence in Marseilles.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who was reelected as head of the Russian Football Union at the conference, said the exclusion of the group and the detention of Shprygin were not connected, but made clear the group was out of favor.

"Almost all of its leadership have had problems with law enforcement," Reuters quoted Mutko as saying. "I think that the [ARSA] got Russian football into trouble."

With Russia set to host the soccer World Cup in 2018, the Football Against Racism in Europe (Fare) network decried the mixed signals sent by Russian politicians during fan violence at the Euro 2016 championships.

In a notorious example, Igor Lebedev, a member of the RFU and an ultranationalist politician for the Liberal Democrat Party founded by his father, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, encouraged Russian fans who fought with English fans during the Russia-England match in Marseille on June 11.

"I don't see anything wrong with the fans fighting," Lebedev tweeted. "Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!"

"I don't understand those politicians and officials who are criticizing our fans," Lebedev continued in a separate tweet. "We should defend them, and then we can sort it out when they come home."

In the face of criticism, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov appealed to Russian fans to "follow the law" and "not react to any provocations" in France. But while speaking at an economic forum in St. Petersburg a week later, President Putin appeared to mock the situation, saying he "didn't know how 200 Russian fans could beat several thousand of the British."

In its comments, Fare also condemned the close ties to the authorities and official support enjoyed by far-right Russian fan-base leaders like Shprygin. Shprygin is, for instance, an aide to Lebedev, who leapt to his defense in comments to SportEkspress on September 24.

Decrying Shprygin's detention as a "circus," Lebedev blamed the Interior Ministry for pressuring the fan leader and claimed he would raise the issue with the Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev directly.

"This all started after Euro 2016. [Law enforcement] organs did not like Shprygin’s behavior in France," said Lebedev.

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