Putin regime clamps down on troublemakers but fails to tackle the root causes of football violence
Moscow seeks to tame far-right hooligans before World Cup showcase
Trained, battle-hardened and fuelled by nationalist fervour, 150 Russian hooligans marched into battle wearing gum shields and wielding iron bars to prove they were the foremost force in global footballing violence.
With calculated discipline, the Russians ranged across the old town square in the French port city of Marseille, targeting English fans and battering them into submission. Two English fans were left in comas and dozens were injured. Police likened their progress to rampaging wildebeest.
“Despite the fact they had a much greater majority, you could say we showed them their place,” a Russian hooligan, who was part of the fighting at the 2016 European Championship, told the BBC in a documentary screened earlier this year.
If the "Battle of Marseille" marked the zenith of international violence by Russian hooligans, the incident has been cited by British lawmakers concerned about potential violence and discrimination at this summer’s World Cup which starts on June 14.
Despite an unprecedented operation by the Russian security services, experts say that embedded racism and the threat from a loose alliance of European far-right groups has the potential to disrupt the tournament.
President Vladimir Putin has a vested interest in ensuring a trouble-free tournament to show the organisation and efficiency of a country both stung by accusations of being a "mafia state" and under fire for an aggressive foreign policy.
The state has introduced tough laws threatening up to 10 years in prison for troublemakers while known hooligans have been told to sign good behaviour pledges. Many living in host cities have been told to stay at home or go abroad or risk unspecified harsh sanctions.
A British government minister said last month that Russia had drawn up a blacklist of about 1,800 hooligans. The measures limit the capacity for organised violence involving Russian hooligans, said Pavel Klymenko of the Fare network, set up to combat discrimination in football.
“The chances for spontaneous violence are still high,” he said. “It depends in part on how the Russian team does.”
Russia – which qualified for the final as host nation – is seen to have one of its weakest teams for decades. It will open the tournament against Saudi Arabia. Egypt is also in its qualifying group.
Despite the crackdown, the Putin government has failed to tackle the underlying discrimination endemic in Russian society which has resulted in Russian clubs and the national team being repeatedly fined for fans’ racist chanting.
England player Danny Rose, who is black, has told his family not to attend the tournament because of concerns that they would be racially abused, the Evening Standard reported. The player was subjected to monkey chants and pelted with stones while playing for England's under-21 side in Serbia in 2012.
England manager Gareth Southgate asked Rose to stand up in front of his national teammates and explain what he felt about racism.
“For the benefit of the other players I asked him to share his experiences,” Southgate said. “What was clear was that he felt let down by the authorities and that was sad to hear. He’s part of our team and part of our family. We intend to support our players as well as we possibly can, so it’s very sad. None of us know what is going to happen in Russia but, sadly, he thinks there’s the possibility of something happening that he wouldn’t want his family to experience.”
“When I talk about discrimination, people look at me like I’m an alien,” said Robert Ustian, a football fan and prominent Moscow-based anti-extremism campaigner.
The reputation of the violent Russian hooligan emerged from the chaos of the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Concerned about the threat from unemployed and embittered young men, the authorities allowed them to control stadiums as long as they avoided involvement in political violence, said Mr Ustian.
Grounds became breeding grounds of far-right activism. Prominent figures emerged including Denis Nikitin, a neo-Nazi and dedicated football hooligan, who organised mixed martial arts events and promoted far-right causes through his clothing line.
He has been a key influence in linking far-right groups across Europe, offering combat training to dedicated fascists from numerous countries, says Gerry Gable, the publisher of anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. “Nikitin since 2013 has been travelling all over the world training young Nazi groups,” he said.
Russian football hooligans have also built networks with their counterparts in other parts of Europe including powerful groups in Poland, the Nordic nations and Serbia, said Mr Klymenko, the Eastern Europe Development Officer for Fare.
Despite the crackdown on discrimination before the World Cup, Fare has charted a rise in monkey chants at black players and neo-Nazi songs at Russian football grounds in the last year.
Asian and Arab foreign supporters have been warned to expect to be stopped and searched by police more regularly on public transport because of racial profiling commonly adopted by the Russian authorities, according to a Fare diversity guide.
A report produced by Fare and the Moscow-based Sova Centre reported that a group of students from Iraq was attacked in the last year in Orel, western Russia, home to the infamous Orel Butchers group suspected of involvement in the Marseille violence.
But it found that the overall number of acts of discrimination were down, with the number of far-right banners significantly down following the government crackdown and attempts by football authorities to clean up the game.
“The far-right scene is currently disintegrated and intimidated,” said Ilia Artemiev, a Sova researcher. “Keeping in mind the extraordinary police presence in all of the World Cup host cites, we might hope that serious violent incidents will be prevented.”
Fifa President Gianni Infantino said this week that he had “rarely been so relaxed” about an event and played down the threat of hooliganism. “Everything is being done to ensure Russia will offer a safe environment,” he said.
Mr Ustian, who founded the group CSKA Fans Against Racism and sends undercover spotters to the Moscow club’s games said that troublemakers showed little appetite for fighting at the World Cup. “When I speak to hooligans, they say what happened in Marseille can only happen in Marseille,” he said. “They believe they are patriots and they say: ‘This is our soil and this World Cup has to be exemplary.’”
Deputy Chief Constable of Britain's South Yorkshire Police, Mark Roberts, who will lead a small British police contingent to the tournament, said that he recognised the dangers of violence after the Marseille fighting. “I am not going to give blank cheques about ‘everything will be fine’,” he said. He told British MPs last month that he had been given “consistent reassurance” that the Russians wanted to put on a safe event to show the country at its best.
The threat from the English hooligans has also receded in the face of robust police activity with nearly 2,000 fans subject to banning orders, according to government statistics.
The British far-right has shown little interest in stoking tensions in Russia with little mention of the tournament on hardcore chatrooms, according to former violent extremist Nigel Bromage, the founder of anti-radicalisation group Small Steps.
The British media has still been full of stories of Russian hooligans lying in wait to ambush the estimated 7,000 to 10,000 English fans for a repeat of the Marseille violence. It comes as relations between the two countries plunged after the UK led a global diplomatic response following the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in March.
“I can’t remember a tournament when there haven’t been dire warnings of terrible things that were about to befall us as we travelled abroad,” Kevin Miles, chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Federation, told MPs examining the two years of security preparations for the event.