Manuel Veth –
The UEFA European Championships in France are not even one week old, and the tournament is already marred by fan riots that have not been seen to this extent since the 1998 World Cup, which was also held in France. At the centre of the violence stood the England vs Russia match in Marseille where English, local French club fans, and Russian hooligans wrote a dark chapter in Euro history. Time will tell how much blame will be assigned to each party for what happened on the streets of Marseille.
What is certain is that Russian fans were solely responsible for the violence at the Stade Vélodrome after the final whistle sounded on Saturday night. Russian fans, who were apparently provoked by English fans after the final whistle sounded in the 1-1 draw between the two countries, rushed the English half of the stand—the two groups were only separated by a rope—behind the England goal.
In the process many innocent fans were hurt, and UEFA has since launched an investigation into the Russian Football Union (RFU)—UEFA has also warned that both England and Russia could be expelled from the tournament if there is further violence involving both groups.
Russian Hooligans and the Role of the Russian Football Union
The role of the RFU, especially, has to be questioned regarding what happened in the stadium. Moments after the final whistle sounded, Russia’s Sport Minister, and president of the RFU, Vitaly Mutko could be seen with both fists up in the air in front of the Russian supporters.
Of course, Mutko had no intention of urging the Russian hooligans to commit further violence, but in the light of what happened during the day, Mutko should have perhaps avoided such gestures. The Sport Minister then made another blunder when he tried to downplay the actions of the Russian fans in the stadium.
“There was no clash… The entire thing is being exaggerated, in fact everything is fine here,” Mutko told R-Sport. Instead, Mutko focused on pointing out the weak security in the stadium. “When the match ended, there was no barrier between the fans. The British were upset, of course, but it all quickly dissolved.”
Only after UEFA started their investigation, did Mutko concede that Russian fans could be responsible. Mutko then stated that it was a good thing that UEFA had issued a warning that both England and Russia could be banned from the tournament, and that UEFA had started a disciplinary case against Russia for crowd violence, racist behaviour, and setting of fireworks (some pictures can be found here).
The Political Reaction
Shaun Walker from the Guardian, meanwhile, reported from Moscow that Russia’s state media has been very much in denial over the full extent of what happened in France. “Two hundred and fifty Russian fans repulsed an attack by several thousand English and forced them to flee,” the state news service Vesti reported. “English fans started the fight by attacking our fans, but 250 Russians from different corners of our country did not flinch and repulsed the attack of the heavily drunken islanders.”
While England fans are far from blameless in regard to what happened in Marseille, this assessment not only shows an incorrect picture of what happened in the stadium, but also is dangerous in that it glorifies the role of the Russian football hooligans. In fact, the media in Russia were not the only ones to give support to the behaviour of the Russian ultras.
Russian MP Igor Lebedev wrote on Twitter: “I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite, well done boys, keep it up!” He further wrote, “I don’t understand those politicians and officials who are criticising our fans. We should defend them, and then we can sort it out when they come home.” Lebedev also believes that France is to blame for what happened in Marseille: “What happened in Marseille and in other French towns is not the fault of fans, but is more about the inability of the police to organize an event like this properly.”
Following several negative responses by both Russian and international media, Lebedev then tweeted, “Everyone who wrote bad things about my tweets that supported our fans, I want to say. RUSSIA WAS, IS AND WILL BE A GREAT COUNTRY!!!”
Lebedev is not only a member of the executive board of the Russian Football Union, but also sits in the State Duma as a member of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, which was founded by his father Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky is known as a right wing populist, who despite his Jewish origin—he was born with the name Vladimir Eidelstein—has taken a strong anti-Zionist, extremely right wing Russian blood and soil stance in the past.
Hence, Lebedev’s comments fall into the typical Russian right wing rhetoric that defends the motherland at all cost, and downplays events that could threaten the image of the nation. It is, therefore, no surprise, that the vast majority of the ultras involved in the events in Marseille, and elsewhere in France, are active in Russia’s right wing scene. Indeed, the right wing mentality is an important aspect when analysing the events that took place involving the Russian hooligans.
150 Russian Hooligans Played Cat and Mouse with the French Police
Another aspect is the fact that a few hundred Russian hooligans, French police are officially speaking of 150 hooligans, could more or less play cat and mouse with French police and security, who were seemingly overwhelmed by the violence. As the BBC reported, none of the Russian hooligans were arrested and therefore remain at large, which puts doubt over the security of England’s next group match against Wales, which takes place in Lens on Thursday. Lens is just a short hop from Lille, where Russia will play Slovakia the day before.
— Stefano Conforti (@confortistefano) June 12, 2016
The French police should have been prepared, however, as it was known before the tournament where certain fans would be active. Futbolgrad’s writer, and Lokomotiv Moscow blogger, Stefano Conforti tweeted out a picture that highlighted that the ultras of all the major Moscow based clubs had carved up France into four territories—Lokomotiv Moscow, Spartak Moscow, CSKA Moscow, and a free territory. Lens and Lille will be in Spartak’s sector, and the French police in those cities will, therefore, have to deal with a different group of Russian hooligans.
These sorts of maps are usually posted on Russian fan forums, and even on several twitter accounts—often self-described as promoters of ultra culture. While the map shows that Lille and Lens are technically in Spartak’s zone, the fan groups of the big Moscow clubs have shown in the past that they are not above working together against a common enemy.
The 2010 Football Riots as a History Lesson
In 2010 we were caught up in the Moscow Football Riots, which was a violent protest by the fans of all the major Moscow based football clubs at Manezhnaya ploshchad, not far from the Kremlin and the Red Square, following the stabbing of a Spartak Moscow fan by a person from the Caucasus. What followed was an organized pogrom at the centre of the city that targeted people from the Caucasus, and Central Asia (more on the riot here).
These protests showed both the right wing nature of Moscow’s hooligans, as well as the fact that they were willing to unite against what they perceived as a common enemy—in the case of Marseille, the common enemy seemed very dynamic as football fans from various factions seemed to unite in order to generate further disturbance.
The big question will be what happens next. The close proximity of the Russia and England games to each other could mean further violence between Russian and English supporters. It would also be no surprise to see violence between Russian and Slovakian hooligans. Yet Slovakian hooligans have already released statements saying that they are looking forward to fighting English hooligans. The bizarre honour code that dictates hooligan life could now switch the attention of Slovakian hooligans toward Russian hooligans.
Hence, the north of France could become another powder keg with various hooligan groups trying to establish themselves as the top dog of the tournament. It is therefore no surprise that both Russian authorities, and England’s football team have released statements urging their fans to behave.
What Will Happen Next?
David Davies, who was FA executive director during Euro 2000, told BBC Sport: “A team has never been as close as it is today to being thrown out of a major tournament. In 2000, we were just looking at what went on inside the stadia. UEFA are now looking at what goes on in the streets outside too.” According to Davies, the reason for this is the fact that UEFA is under huge pressure to deliver secure games. “They are also under huge pressure to act decisively because of the threat of terrorism that the French authorities are already facing.”
To be thrown out of the tournament would be an enormous blow for Russia, which is currently preparing to host the 2018 World Cup. But, in many ways, such action by UEFA would be consequential. Russian hooligans were already involved in crowd trouble during the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, and, as a result, UEFA handed Russia a six-point deduction. This penalty was then suspended for three and a half years, as Russia was put under probation—the penalty would have applied to any breaches during Euro 2016 qualifying matches.
The probation period expired just before the current tournament started. Yet the statements issued by Russian officials, and some Russian politicians shows that Russia has done very little during the probation period to improve its ultras problem. UEFA decided on Tuesday that Russia would be fined €150,000, and that the country would be disqualified from the tournament if there is any further crowd trouble during matches.
Futbolgrad has been a close follower of the ultra scene in Russian football and, in our opinion, it seems that any measures to tackle the problem of hooligan violence is at best fairly superficial. This doesn’t mean that it will be unsafe to attend the World Cup in Russia—in fact security will be better organized there than in France—but it does show that Russia’s fan culture has major issues that need to be tackled, and that the country’s officials have very little appetite to truly solve the problem.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus