VICE GLOBAL

Hooligans: A Formula for Self-Destruction

I accompanied Ukrainian hooligans to fights from September 2012 to August 2013 and watched as they injured themselves in the throes of a subtle, almost subliminal form of nationalism.

by Andrew Lubimov
Nov 3 2014, 9:34pm

"Lavash" comes to his senses after a clash between rival ultras in Nikolaev, Ukraine.

There are dozens of hooligan groups in Ukraine. They formed independently of soccer clubs by aligning with German and British fans. When I accompanied the hooligans on their trips and to fights from September 2012 to August 2013 the movement was still pretty small, so the number of serious injuries was minor, but no less saddening.

Groups or firms of fascists and anti-fascists would rumble with each other, their mutual hatred serving as a shared driving force. Through friends and acquaintances, I observed the scene for months before eventually coming in contact with its leaders. After negotiations, which took a few more months, I was at last allowed to start photographing them, but it was still difficult. It took at least four months before I could move freely among them without being watched. I was regularly on the go with them. I was often present for fights. My equipment sometimes suffered, but they almost always respected me and my stuff when I told them I was a journalist who just wanted to photograph them. After the political uprising and the annexation of Crimea by Russia, it's unclear what will happen to this scene.There were huge rivalries between the various groups.

A Ukrainian anti-riot unit tries to keep hooligans away from a rival group in Saporischschja, southeastern Ukraine

There were huge rivalries between the various groups. A lot of their members weren't even 17 yet and had been recruited directly from school playgrounds or from martial arts schools. A lot of them came from good families and got into the scene through friends. The entry points were clothes, music and, of course, soccer. They were also indoctrinated with a subtle, almost subliminal form of nationalism. Through the sport they were told that sexual minorities must be oppressed and that country and nation must come first. Then they were organized into fighting groups. In the beginning there were test fights, almost auditions, and if you were good and proved yourself, you could go to other cities. The firms' real fascist or anti-fascist sentiments were vague. In the end both sides were more about loyalty to the club's flag, fighting the enemy, and following an ideology without questioning it.

Two hooligan groups meet in Bachtschyssaraj in central Crimea. The groups agree on an equal number of fighters beforehand, and the battle goes on until all members of one group are knocked out.

These boys' lives were strangely romantic at first glance, but the whole thing was actually driven by money. They were the smallest cogs in a big business, and they were cannon fodder at the same time. Money was collected for the hooligans from fans during soccer matches, which was then invested in opening fan shops and bars. The funds were also used for travel expenses when the hooligans had to go to other cities to fight. The strongest boys fought for their flags in city centers. Sometimes fights would be organized on neutral territory. Everything was set up via social media networks, where they also evaluated how the individual firms performed in the fights.

A group of ultras sleeping on a train after a successful fight in Simferopol, Crimea

These guys had careers within the firms, mirroring those of actual football players. Most began in second division clubs. These firms didn't have names and didn't have any status. If they proved themselves, they would be picked up by the firms in the first division. There were age brackets: 18-year-olds would never fight 15-year-olds. There were six to 15 boys in each fighting group. Usually they stopped fighting regularly at 19 or 20. The older boys took care of planning and distributing money. They became the management and competed in the brawls only if their firm was insulted, when they really mobilised against the offending firm.

The planned brawls adhered to a fairness code: they never used weapons, just punches and kicks. But if fights began spontaneously, which usually happened right after a game, things looked different. Then there was a good chance of stones, bottles and sticks being used. But that happened fairly rarely because everyone knew that if someone was ever seriously injured, the police would have to investigate everyone. During my time with the hooligans, one boy was seriously hurt; the doctors had to put his head back together. The group that beat him up collected money for his treatment. It was all good in the end.

But all of them had had more or less serious concussions, bruises, broken bones and noses and ripped earlobes. The brawls happened dozens of times a year and most boys didn't go to the hospital with their wounds; they treated themselves at a friend's place. They never told their families about their hobby. Being scared of parents and courageous on the battlefield is a paradox, of course. These brawls shortened their lives. Even though they're so young, a lot of them have memory issues and heart problems. That's why they kept going back to the streets. For them, there was nothing more important than their firm's honour and standing up for their flag, even if the whole thing looked like an extremely slow suicide from the outside.

Maxim after losing a fight in Krywyj Rih, in central Ukraine