Russian hooligans first snatched international headlines when they attacked England supporters at euro 2016 in France.
“The bloody battles in Marseilles left two English fans critically injured and crowned the Russians as the tsars of the football underworld,” (Daily Telegraph).
Now the Kremlin (and the international community) is worried these bands of ‘ultras’, mirrored on England’s violent football club ‘firms’ of the 1980’s, could wreak havoc on this year’s World Cup.
Although they have (allegedly) grown accustomed to Vladimir Putin’s personal protection, as the world cup approaches, the Russian government is cracking down.
“Vladimir Putin has been doing everything in his power to make (the hooligans) disappear before the World Cup kicks off on June 14,” (AFP).
This includes assigning a federal agent to each of the 11 clubs in Moscow, “Where they work with a fan liaison officer – usually a senior hooligan from each firm – in an attempt to control their members” (The Guardian), as well as the introduction of harsher penalties for fighting, and ‘preventative’ arrests.
“Hundreds — some think thousands — have either been rounded up or forced to sign good behaviour promises to make sure nothing sullies Putin’s showpiece,” (AFP).
But this may be too little too late. For the youths who spent their days in boxing and wrestling gyms stretching from one-factory towns in the Urals to Putin’s native Saint Petersburg, this feels like betrayal—and they are unlikely to switch their metal-lined gloves for wooly-knitted ones any time soon.
“For 10 years we were supported by the government,” Alexander Shprygin told AFP, who took part in hooligan fights starting in 1994, and who chartered a plane and flew a cadre of Russian hooligans to Marseille in 2016. “After France, the government stopped supporting us.”
“They may have been forced underground, but Russia’s powerful firms are not likely to vanish – and their influence will take decades to erase” (The Guardian).
Although the government’s crack down will limit pre-planned attacks, the way the gang’s structures work means it’s not easy to control everyone. This means the problem won’t be solved by a temporary crackdown on violence: what’s needed is to tackle the ideology.
“There is now a dichotomy in Russian football culture: its violent aspects have been temporarily dealt with while the xenophobic ones remain unaddressed,” (The Guardian).
This raises questions about Putin’s (and other right-wing politicians’) decision to cosy up to the ultras, back when they were an easy vote to win. Some argue he was just being diplomatic when he held an unprecedented meeting with firm leaders and laid flowers at a Spartak Moscow fan’s burial in December 2010; others see it as an act of courtship that made sure hooligans stayed on Putin’s side throughout his rule.
“Putin… went to this guy’s grave with elements of the far right,” Pavel Klymenko of the London-based Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network told AFP.
“He showed that they share many of the same principles and views.”
There are also allegations that Putin’s government has provided free transport to away games, paid gang-members to work as bodyguards or street muscle, and even offered the occasional well-paid role as a party official, in exchange for loyalty.
“To change the international perception of Russian football fans, the Kremlin has hired PR agencies that have planted so-called gentle fans who distribute sweets, warm tea and blankets at matches and post cheery selfies on Instagram,” (The Guardian).
Despite these public displays, some believe that the government continues to support hooligans in private. “It’s true that the government is trying to clean up the image of football ahead of the World Cup,” Maxim Solopov, a journalist who took part in anti-fascist clashes with Russian hooligans between 2006 and 2010 told The Guardian.
“But they are far more concerned that something like the Ukrainian revolution might happen here, and that, if it does, the rightwing hooligans will take to the streets against the authorities. So in private, they still support violent fan groups. I believe that political power remains in the hands of the rightwing fans.”