Passport

Russian Hooligans Are Wreaking Havoc at Euro 2016, But Does the Kremlin Care?

A Russian parliamentarian said he doesn't "see anything wrong with the fans fighting."

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 11:  Fans clash after the UEFA EURO 2016 Group B match between England and Russia at Stade Velodrome on June 11, 2016 in Marseille, France.  (Photo by )
MARSEILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 11: Fans clash after the UEFA EURO 2016 Group B match between England and Russia at Stade Velodrome on June 11, 2016 in Marseille, France. (Photo by )

Russian parliamentarian Igor Lebedev urged his country’s football fans Monday to keep up the fight against rivals, hours after the Euro 2016 governing body threatened to disqualify his team from the tournament as a result of a violent weekend brawl against Britain.

“I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting,” Lebedev, also a top soccer official in Moscow, wrote in a tweet Monday. “Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!”

The threat of disqualification came after Russian “hooligans” attacked British fans before and immediately after Saturday’s match in Marseilles between Russia and England. Police said the spectators launched into battle wearing rubber mouth guards and martial arts gloves. Outside the stadium, at bars and in public squares, authorities said Russian fans attacked Brits with telescopic cudgels and even knives.

As Russian fans rushed at the British section of the stadium after the final whistle, Russia’s Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko waved at them and pumped his fist in triumph. His behavior, as well as Lebedev’s reaction, have raised questions about the Kremlin’s relationship with Russian hooligans, known as “ultras” — a term in European and Middle Eastern soccer parlance used to describe hardcore fans, many of whom also subscribe to right-wing political ideologies.

The Euro 2016 governing body has begun disciplinary proceedings against Russia, but not Britain. The charges against Russian fans include crowd disturbance, racist behavior, and setting off fireworks.

Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin on Monday blamed the violence on a core of “150 Russian supporters who in reality were hooligans.”

He described them as “extremely well-trained,” but not quite on a “professional” level.

A Twitter account for Russian ultras has posted a series of photos taken inside the stadium that taunted British fans and praised Russians for attacking them.

Britain cracked down on its own hooligans in 2000, passing the “Football (Disorder) Act.” The law requires British citizens convicted of a soccer-related offenses to surrender their passports ahead of international matches and to report to a police station at kick-off time. British courts have used the law to prevent an estimated 2,000 British hooligans from traveling to France for Euro 2016.

In the 1998 World Cup match in Marseilles between Britain and Tunisia, British fans orchestrated attacks on Tunisian spectators, hurled glass bottles at riot police, and smashed everything in sight. One fan even had his throat slashed.

The Russian government doesn’t restrict ultras from attending matches abroad. In fact, the Russian fans who started the fight inside the stadium on Saturday “purchased tickets through the official soccer association,” Piara Powar, the executive director of Farenet, an NGO that monitors far-right soccer fans, told Foreign Policy.

“Russian ultras had an intention to go to Marseilles and perhaps show the world that they were more violent than English fans,” Powar said.

He said the truly violent British fans have either grown too old, or been blocked from attending games by banning orders to pose much of a problem.

The younger fans “may defend themselves” if attacked, “but they’re more interested in getting drunk and singing silly songs. It’s a more stupid form of nationalism,” he said.

Photo credit: LARS BARON/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon

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