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How Russians became the biggest, baddest hooligans at Euro 2016

Soccer hooligans were unheard of in the USSR. In today's Russia, fans who learned brawling from the English have become really good at it.

by Vladimir Kozlov
Jun 15 2016, 4:40pm

Tifosi russi a Marsiglia (Foto di Reuters)

As the Russian soccer squad takes on Slovakia in Lille on Wednesday in its second match at the 2016 European championship, local residents and police are bracing for more trouble. French authorities are on high alert for more violence involving Russian supporters at the tournament, which is hosted by several French cities this year.

Last weekend's heavy fighting in Marseilles between English and Russian fans earned the latter grim notoriety as the latest addition to an international roster of soccer brawlers who smash things, and people, up as they follow their teams around the continent.

Related: English and Russian Soccer Fans Clash Violently in Marseille Ahead of Euro 2016 Match

Soccer hooliganism used to be the province of English fans, renowned around Europe for the violence exhibited by supporters of both the national team and club squads. No longer: Violent fans are found all over the continent, and the Marseille clashes proved that the Russians are now as good as anybody when it comes to soccer-related brawling.

From videos and photographs taken at Marseilles' old port and later at the Velodrome arena, it is clear that those fighting on the Russian side were not just regular fans, but well-organized, and trained, members of hooligan groups.

"In soccer, the degree of xenophobia is very high. It is always us versus the enemy"

The French police, on the lookout for terror plots rather than newfound hooligans, appeared to be totally unprepared for them. The violent Russian fans, after all, weren't that well known to Russian law enforcement, either: nonexistent in the Soviet Union, soccer hooligans are a relatively new invention in Russia.

The bulk of the Russian brawlers was, by several estimates a group between 70 and 250 men, fans of various rival Russian clubs who had temporarily come together to support the national team in Marseilles.

They came from the organized supporter groups of teams ranging from the top Moscow clubs to lesser known ones, such as the Steel Monsters from the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains. After Marseille, two Steel Monsters members posted on social media a photo of themselves holding "a trophy" – a blood-stained flag taken from the English fans.

Photo from Vk.com

Alexander Shprygin, head of the All-Russian Union of Fans and a former hooligan with a Dinamo Moscow supporters' club, declined to say how many among the more than 40 people detained on by the French police were actual hooligans from organized groups.

"This is not the right type of question to ask," he said. According to him, none of the fans detained were actually involved in the clashes.

Russia got a "suspended" ban from UEFA, the European soccer governing body, meaning that if its fans turn violent again it will be disqualified automatically from the monthlong tournament. Some of them were also deported out of France. But Shprygin blamed the Marseilles incidents on the "local police's inadequacy, and poor organization of the tournament".

To be sure, the arrival of potentially violent Russian supporters wasn't entirely unexpected. While not as notorious yet as the English, German or Polish soccer fans, the Russians have been involved in recent years in violence when they traveled west to support their clubs in Europe-wide competitions. But given their small numbers, they raised relatively little alarm.

Hardcore hooligans in Europe also tend to be organized in so-called ultra factions, with distinctive colors and chants that readily identify them, and their potential danger, to a savvy observer. The Russian equivalents of the ultras aren't as familiar to the average European soccer fan—or cop.

However, Russian hooligans sometimes said privately that they'd like to make an impact in Europe. And their first attempt to do so, largely unnoticed at the time, occurred four years ago, when Russia played Poland in Warsaw at the Euro championship's previous edition.

Back then, a 5,000-strong Russian crowd marched from the city center to the stadium. A series of skirmishes between Russian and Polish fans followed, broken up by police who used rubber bullets and tear gas. Local authorities and the media blamed the incident on Polish fans, and it was soon forgotten.

But the Russian fans were clearly learning how to fight abroad. Ironically, they were learning from the masters they would eventually fight on their big debut in Marseilles: the English themselves, whose and behavior they imitated closely in the early 1990s, when soccer hooligan culture came to Russia following the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

Russian hooligans began then to wreak havoc in stadiums, often tearing out plastic seats to fight their opponents and police. Authorities responded by tightening security, which drove violence from soccer arenas to obscure places on cities' outskirts, where violent fans learned how to organize and train for mass fights.

"In the 2000s, the soccer hooliganism issue shifted from public view, and authorities turned a blind eye," said Semyon Charny, a researcher at the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial. "There have been fewer incidents lately, probably, because authorities tightened control of soccer arenas. But fans' aggression didn't disappear."

With an emphasis on fitness and combat sports, Russian hooligans tend to be more disciplined and in better shape than their counterparts from nations with a longer tradition of organized soccer support. As images from Marseille showed, they tend to be fit, muscular men who clearly look like they're adept at fighting. And the Euro 2016, with their team playing England, the nation that invented soccer hooliganism, may have been the perfect occasion to have a continental coming-out party.

Russian fans (background) face English supporters in a street at the Old Port of Marseille, France, June 11. Photo by Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA

Russian politicians weren't necessarily embarrassed by their countrymen's violent behavior in Marseilles. In fact, some of them resorted to the nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric that has become commonplace in Russia over the last couple of years.

Vladimir Markin, head of media relations for the Russian Federation's Investigative Committee, an agency roughly comparable to the US FBI, said the Russian fans were "normal guys" and resorted to homophobia and tropes of rough masculinity. Responding to a statement from Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin that the Russian hooligans were "trained to fight", he said on Twitter that "a normal guy, the way he should be, probably surprises them. They are used to seeing their 'guys' only at gay pride parades..."

"I don't see anything bad in the fan fight," Igor Lebedev, deputy speaker of the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russian Parliament, and a member of the Russian Soccer Union's executive committee, tweeted. "Quite the opposite, our boys did a good job. Keep it up!"

"Our boys just did the right thing by chasing drunken English fans," echoed Alexander, a man in his late thirties in Moscow who only gave his first name, as often happens in Russia. "I heard the English had provoked them by shouting abuse against Putin and Russia. I know, they don't like us in Europe, but at least now they will be scared of us."

"I am ashamed," disagreed a middle-aged woman who gave her name as Tatyana. "They behaved like animals. That is why I don't feel comfortable saying I am Russian while travelling abroad."

The clashes between the Russian and English fans occurred at a time when relations between Russia and the West are at the lowest point since the waning years of the Cold War, following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its subsequent support of pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine.

"Soccer is the most aggressive sport, and this has an impact on its fans," said Charny, the researcher. "You won't see this kind of aggression in tennis fans, for instance."

"In soccer, the degree of xenophobia is very high," he added. "It is always us versus the enemy. And it is not something specific for Russia, it's a problem for the whole of Europe."

Organized Russian soccer fans have been known in the past to have connections to political organizations, such as the pro-Kremlin youth movements Idushchiye Vmeste (Those walking together) and Nashi (Ours).

It's not clear, however, if such ties endure —nor are there any signs that the fans now exporting violence to France may be directed from above.

But this being Russia, there are conspiracy theories. One involves an even bigger event than the Euro championship: the World Cup, also held every four years. The next one is in 2018 — in Russia itself, as it were.

"Someone could be interested in Russia's losing the World Cup because that would appear as a sign of blatant unfairness and bias towards Russian soccer, becoming a strong proof that the policy of confrontation with the West is right," Konstantin Remchukov, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

"But this," he added, "is just a hypothesis."

Vladimir Kozlov is the author of Fanaty (Fans), a 2008 book on Russian soccer hooligans.