Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My night with the Russian ultras: "We respect the English tradition of hooliganism, but we no longer fear them"

Russia
Russia
I met him at a bar in the southeast of Moscow.
Vadim was a founder of Flint's Crew, one of Moscow's most infamous football hooligan firms — or ultras as they now prefer to be called — and I had expected him to be shaven-headed and semi-articulate.
My expectations, though, were confounded. Long-haired and about 40 years old, he wasn't a caricature of those who attacked England supporters inside the Stade Vélodrome in Marseilles on Saturday.
Yet he was as passionate and informed about football hooliganism as some people are about wine or art.
"Strange as it may seem, the first football hooligans in Russia were hippies," Vadim told me over the first of several beers.
"It was in the early 1970s, and anything that guys could get their hands on from the West became immediately fashionable.

"First they found out about The Beatles and all that stuff, from magazines smuggled into the country, and then, a bit later, about football hooligans.
"You look at the old photos of the first organised Soviet hooligan gangs and they all have long hair and patched jeans."
Getty ImagesFans clash after the UEFA EURO 2016 Group B match between England and Russia
Fans clash after the UEFA EURO 2016 Group B match between England and Russia
Although a fanatical Spartak Moscow fan, Vadim wore a Liverpool FC jacket.
Like most ultras he was an admirer of the English football hooligan scene of the 1980s and 1990s.
"The British and the Russians are very similar," he said. "When we are not technically at war we need some kind of conflict.
"As we say in Russia, a voinushka - a 'little war'.
"Something to get the blood up. That's what football hooliganism is."
Vadim breathlessly told me the story of how he had recorded the violence that erupted in Trafalgar Square after England's semi-final defeat by Germany at Euro '96 .
"Some of your guys — hools, big guys — came up to me and said, 'What you doing?'
"I explained that I was recording the action to show our lot back in Russia how to be real hooligans, making a kind of 'how to' study guide, and they said OK and took me with them, stuck me up on one of the lions, and I filmed the whole thing from there.
"I was the only person to tape the riots from the hooligans' side. Look at the BBC footage, you'll see me."
Russia had been in the midst of an economic crisis at the time and I wondered how Vadim had managed to afford to travel to the UK for the month-long tournament.
"Easy," he said, shrugging. "I sold my flat."
Although football hooliganism existed in the USSR at the time, it was not widespread. From the 1990s onwards, though, "hooligan firms" mushroomed.
"Russian football hooligans want to flex their muscles, to show the world — England in particular — that anything you can do in a hundred years, we can do in 10," Vadim confessed.
Today the biggest clashes take place between ultras from the Moscow sides. This year about 200 ultras from CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow fought running battles on the streets of the Russian capital in fighting that had been organised online.
Across the Russian Federation, every team has its own gang of ultras. Russia's system of compulsory military service means that most have some military experience.
The more serious firms train their members — like Fifa, football's world governing body, the ultras have their own version of Fair Play: no knives are allowed.
Capturing banners and flags from opposing teams is of great importance. In the aftermath of the clashes with England fans in Marseilles, Russia supporters posed online with "captured" St George flags. Some were bloodstained.
After the fighting on Saturday night Russian ultras boasted online about "the total victory of our hardcore over the English".
Getty ImagesFootball fans clash with riot police in central Moscow
Football fans clash with riot police in central Moscow before Euro 2016
Vadim was among a number of football hooligans who I interviewed for a book,Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People's Game .
Another had this to say about what he saw as the decline of English hooliganism.
"Basically, in recent years British fans have just shouted a lot and chucked bottles," Gosha told me.
"Not serious opponents for us. I was at the 2006 World Cup and saw how they behaved. They'd find a camera, chant, wave their fists and run off. Ridiculous.
"In Russia when two groups of fans meet they get right down to business and fight until the opposing fans are either on the floor or run away. It's the same all over eastern Europe.
"We respect the English tradition of hooliganism, but we no longer fear them. They are weak compared to Russia, Poland, Serbia and so on."
I pointed out that many of the fans they had attacked had likely just been businessmen and family men following their teams around Europe.
"Lots of the guys in my firm are the same," said Gosha. "They have their own businesses, kids, but nevertheless...
"The biggest problem for Russian football hooligans," he went on, "is not that the authorities here might take your passport away, but that you will simply be refused a visa.
"I know that I am extremely unlikely to be granted a visa in the near future. I've been in prison abroad too often — in Spain, in France, in Turkey, in Norway ..."
REX/ShutterstockPolice tends to an English supporter who was injured in clashes with Russian supporters and French Riot Police in the city of Marseille, France
Police tends to an English supporter who was injured in clashes with Russian supporters and French Riot Police in the city of Marseille, France
This passion for hooliganism, like many things in modern-day Russia, has its roots in the Soviet era.
In the USSR a violent pastime for a significant number of young people, especially in the provinces, was stenka na stenku, or "wall on wall".
This consisted of groups of people from two neighbouring areas meeting at an arranged point and assembling themselves into two lines, or "walls".
They would then walk towards each other.
The aim was to take out your corresponding number in the opposing "wall" by any means necessary.
Russian Ultras beat English fans to the ground with chairs before ripping down Leicester City flag
Russian Ultras beat English fans to the ground with chairs before ripping down Leicester City flag
"In Soviet-era Belarus, in the years after World War Two , the guys from my village, Dubovka, would go and fight with the guys from Savichi," Tamara Nikolayevna, a witness to the fighting, told me.
"They would carry long poles and stand, facing each other, whacking each other with these sticks.
"People would get crippled; there would be blood everywhere.
"The women and children from each village would cheer on their men. 'Come on, give him what for!' we would yell."
The Soviet authorities imposed a ban on stenka na stenku in the mid 1950s, but the practice still continues.
"Football hooliganism just replaced stenka na stenku," Vadim told me. "The whole scene is just an extension of it."
The strength of Russia's football hooligans has not escaped the Kremlin.
In 2006 top members of Nashi, a Kremlin-funded youth group, were installed as leaders of CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow fan clubs.
Football hooligans also met Vladislav Surkov, who was one of President Putin's top advisers at the time.
The Kremlin was nervous about street protests in the aftermath of Ukraine's pro-West 2004 Orange Revolution, and it wanted the ultras onside.
Nashi's leader, Vasily Yakemenko, boasted that in the event of any similar disturbances in Moscow he would summon thousands of ultras to "chase away" demonstrators.
However, Putin temporarily lost the ultras in 2011, after Yegor Sviridov, a member ofSpartak Moscow's Yunion firm , was killed by a resident of Russia's mainly Muslim North Caucasus region.
Furious at what they saw as the police's inability to bring the guilty to justice, thousands of football hooligans and far-right nationalists rioted next to the Kremlin walls, in the most serious violence to hit central Moscow for years.
At the peak of the disturbances, which included dozens of brutal attacks on non-ethnic Russians, the Moscow police chief, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, held negotiations with masked protesters.
Getty ImagesEngland fans clash with Russian fans
England fans clashed with Russian fans ahead of the game between the two countries
Tensions with the West over Ukraine and an attendant surge in ultra-nationalism have since brought many ultras back into the Kremlin's fold.
Ultra habits run deep in Russia. After Saturday's violence Igor Lebedev, the vice-speaker of the Russian parliament and a member of Russian FA's executive committee, fired off an inflammatory tweet : "I don't see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite. Our guys are great. Keep it up!"
He also suggested Russia's ultras had simply been defending the country's honour, and that Vitaly Mutko, the country's sports minister, would have been happy to join in the violence.
"Nine of 10 fans go to football to fight. This is a normal situation."

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