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Among the Khuligans

When riot police, casual racism, and small-scale arson are part of an average weekend game, is it any wonder that Russian soccer fans’ trip to France turned ugly?


Russian has a particular word for the stench of day-old alcohol seeping from the pores of hardened drinkers — peregar. If you ever want a hefty dose of it, go to a Russian domestic soccer game and sit in the cheap seats.

Or rather, stand in them – no one else around you will be sitting. But do use caution if you’re from an ethnic minority, or if you don’t appreciate cigarette smoke, or the odd flare or smoke bomb being set off in your vicinity.

This is the world of Russian soccer – the world that produced the muscle-bound thugs, clad in black, armed with makeshift weapons and mouth guards that we’ve seen all week on our television screens and Twitter feeds, waging war with English fans in Marseille’s Vieux Port and the city’s Stade Vélodrome.

I have been following Russian soccer for more than a decade, and I have attended dozens of games across the country, from urban stadiums to venues deep in the provinces, as both a journalist and a fan. I never ran with the “Ultras,” as organized gangs of fanatical supporters are known, of Spartak Moscow or CSKA or Zenit St. Petersburg, but I did experience firsthand the life of an average Russian soccer fan.

Most ordinary fans, who catch the average weekend game or two, of course have little to do with the men whose brutal antics have put their country at risk of expulsion from the European Championships. Still, Russia is a country whose modern domestic soccer culture recalls the mostly white, mostly male, working-class nature of the sport in Western Europe two-plus decades ago, before safety regulations, stadium policies, and commercialization attracted a wealthier, more ethnically diverse, and more family-oriented clientele. And this culture includes – maybe even breeds — the men we’ve seen wreaking havoc across France over the past few days.

These men are not in a happy place. Neither, for that matter, is Russian soccer, even though the country is two years away from hosting the FIFA World Cup, and even though, nominally, soccer remains the country’s most popular pastime. Attendance is down — to an average of 11,169 fans per game, as reported in March by the Sovetsky Sport newspaper. In 1971, that figure was more than 30,000. It’s not just that people are staying at home to watch matches on television either. The sports website Championat reported in May that TV audiences for Russia’s domestic championship had fallen 60 percent since 2009. This, despite the much-anticipated launch in October 2015 of a domestic sports TV channel, billed as Russia’s answer to ESPN.

Perhaps would-be fans are put off by sights such as the thousands of army recruits clutching riot batons, shields, and helmets, who are deployed for crowd-control measures at every game. One common tactic sees the conscripts form a narrow tunnel, from a transportation hub like a metro station, to the stadium entrance, sometimes a mile or more away. Thousands of fans are then herded through the suffocating corridor, with no way out and often no space to stop. Rain or shine, whether in Russia’s baking summers or freezing winters, it’s at best frustrating and at worst panic-inducing to shuffle along with the crowd into a sporting venue. It’s not clear what this gantlet is meant to achieve, besides intimidating the 95 percent of fans who exhibit no interest in causing trouble.

Or maybe it’s the conditions once inside. There are the minor, but pervasive, contraventions of stadium policies, especially in the away sections: People spark up cigarettes with impunity, despite a blanket ban allegedly in force for several years. More jarringly, there is also the casual racism — not just the monkey chants at black players that make headlines, especially in English newspapers, but the chants directed against Russia’s own ethnic minority populations when a team from the provinces comes to town: the Chechens or Dagestanis, say, who get labeled “goat-fuckers” by several thousand screaming white Muscovites. The old black-white-gold Russian imperial flag, adopted as a nationalist touchstone by the country’s right wing, is a common sight and has become even more so in recent years – the result of a revival of Russian nationalist sentiment.

There are hardly any stewards or professional security personnel in these stadiums. In the home section, the army maintains a visible presence, which can often lead to tensions: A 2013 match in Yaroslavl ironically descended into utter chaos, for example, when riot police intervened to “restore order” after some minor fan hijinks. In the away section, however, very often fans are left to their own devices, or, worse, are policed by leaders of the away team’s own Ultras groups. If there are scuffles, or if someone — as I’ve witnessed several times — decides to set fire to a scarf or a shirt from the opposition side, it’s largely up to the fans to sort it out themselves. Shocker: Sometimes these fires get out of control, especially if fans bring in industrial pyrotechnics (pat-down searches aren’t always effective and, besides, there are dozens of stories of fans inserting banned objects into their bodily orifices in order to sneak them in). Then, in some stadiums, the fire is put out by water cannon, sometimes aimed indiscriminately into the fan sector from the field.

Strangely, you often won’t find the Ultras amid the mayhem inside the stadiums. Many of these groups have taken to arranging fights on more secluded territory, away from the prying eyes of the police. This is especially common when rival teams from Moscow’s two major urban centers, Moscow and St. Petersburg, meet. A 2013 mass fight between fans of Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg, which occurred in a residential district, was captured on camera and showed the extent of planning and coordination that goes into enabling hundreds of young men to kick and punch one another for sport – as well as how little all of this actually has to do with soccer.

But perhaps it is the peregar-generating alcohol consumption that is most off-putting. This isn’t unique to Russia — as an Englishman I’d be a hypocrite if I suggested otherwise — but the pervasiveness of alcohol at Russian soccer games often surprised me. It was particularly pronounced when traveling away from home with Moscow teams to nearby cities. Places like Nizhny Novgorod or Kazan are reachable by train in half a day, which meant a journey lubricated by beer, vodka, or whatever else you could fit into your overnight bag. The traveling fans who spilled onto the streets from the train stations were often drunk even before they reached the stadium (after staggering their way past a corridor of soldiers first).

I should say, it isn’t all as violent and gloomy as the above might suggest. It was often fun, in a perverse way, to go through all this, to wear the discomforts or inconveniences stoically, and then to watch a game of soccer, singing for 90 minutes with thousands of others. Nor is all this uniquely Russian, exactly — there have been times when I’ve experienced similar things watching games in England, and Italy, and Turkey. But these were exceptions, rather than the rule. What is unique to Russia is that the experience of attending a game is regularly a dehumanizing one, week after week. From a commercial perspective, this is what happens when match ticket sales represent such a small proportion of a team’s revenue – most of it comes from TV deals and sponsorships that the well-being of fans is not a priority. A 2014 investigation by the news site Interfax, for instance, showed one Russian club spent as much on fees to soccer agents as it earned from ticket sales in an entire year. More generally, it’s a product of serious underinvestment in professional soccer over several generations that is only now being addressed through stadium-building and social initiatives (such as “Football Without Bad Language”) before the World Cup. The 11 new stadiums for 2018 may at least provide a more pleasant viewing experience for fans; whether cultural changes will accompany them remains to be seen.

A Russian soccer stadium in Yekaterinburg or Krasnodar may not be the right place to look to help explain the origins of the recent attacks in Marseille. These were carried out by a minority of fans — in the words of the city’s prosecutor, Brice Robin, “150 Russian supporters … well prepared for ultra-rapid, ultra-violent action.” Every country has its radicals, its hooligans, its violent youth, and the forces that drive them are often far larger than what can fit inside a soccer stadium. But the difference is that most countries have also taken a proactive approach toward ensuring a pleasant experience for the majority of fans who just want to watch a game. In Russia, football still appears to cater to the preferences of a small – and violent — minority.

Photo credit: Catherine Ivill (AMA/Getty Images)

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