MOSCOW — Soccer may be called “the beautiful game,” but when hooligans hell bent on violence start brawling, things can get very ugly indeed.
And as France struggles to put on the third biggest sporting event in the world, the month-long European soccer championships, the worst incidents so far have involved Russian “fans” who came ready, willing and eager for battle.
Such was the violence inside the stadium in Marseille on Saturday when Russia played England, that UEFA, the soccer association’s governing body, fined Russia €150,000 ($169,000) and threatened to throw Russia out of the competition altogether if the rioting resumed inside a stadium. But outside? Not so clear.
And sure enough, after Russia lost to Slovakia in the northern French city of Lille on Wednesday, no violence broke out inside the stadium. That was reserved for the streets in the center of the city.
French cops already are hard pressed in a country where labor protests have turned violent and the shadow of terror looms larger by the hour. On Monday, a killer serving the so-called Islamic State murdered a police commander and his partner in front of their 3-year-old son.
In the middle of this almost perfect storm of security threats, the French police are in no mood to mollycoddle hooligans. They’ve focused their attention now on the Russians. And you might think that Moscow would understand. But no.
Speaking at the State Duma on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared Moscow’s official position: The Kremlin was supporting the soccer fans. Lavrov blamed English fans for “outrageous” behavior, for insulting the Russian flag, and for disrespecting Russian officials during the fight in Marseille.
Lavrov’s ire was raised further by the fact that on Tuesday, French police stopped a bus with Russian fans and searched everyone aboard. Police detained the bus driver and 43 passengers. And although all detainees were freed by Wednesday morning, the Kremlin was furious.
Russian authorities insisted that the fans on the bus were “an official group” and that they had nothing to do with the violent clashes in the port of Marseille.
“We’ve been told that all the fans on the bus will be deported. The French police are threatening to use force,” Alexander Shprygin, spokesman for the Russian Union of Supporters, told TASS on Tuesday. Lavrov called the actions of French police “unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, a 51-year-old English fan was in critical condition as a result of the attack by Russian hooligans, and many ordinary Russians felt ashamed of their countrymen causing trouble in Europe.
Unlike Foreign Minister Lavrov, 61 percent of gazeta.ru readers said they disapproved of the violence carried out by the soccer fans. And some officials disapproved as well. Before Lavrov spoke at the State Duma, Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov condemned the Russian hooligans' actions as "outrageous" and "absolutely unacceptable." He added that not all of his colleagues were expressing the same opinion.
Even without witnessing the brawl in France, most Russians could imagine the guys participating in it: very buff, often in the gym lifting weights, and dreaming of a “real fight” with real English soccer fans.
Why did they pick the English fans for the attack? For the hooligans, rioting is a sport more important than soccer and the Brits are seen as the fading champions ready to be toppled.
“Beating up Brits in front of the Old Port in Marseille was a dream for many of them,” a longtime soccer fan who asked to be called Alexander told The Daily Beast. “That’s the reason all these guys from Vesyolye Rebyata, Lets, Music Hall, and other fan clubs came to France—they belong to very close, very informal clubs of fistfight fans, and they see English fans as the paragons of such hooliganism.”
Indeed, in Lille on Wednesday night, the Brits led the violence that put 16 people in hospital and resulted in 36 arrests. In the small city of Lens, where England will play Wales, tensions remain high, and now there are reports of as many as 300 German hooligans coming for the Germany v. Poland match in the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris.
The Russian participants of the fight in Marseille came from Oryol, Kaluga, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, and they had the same hooligan tendencies that English fans have long been known for, said Alexander.
“Most of them have no other way to let steam off than through fighting, and the number of guys in this community is growing rapidly,” he added.
While British hooligans are famous for their drinking, the Russians are in training, literally. “Now many people are boxers or into mixed martial arts, and Russian hooligans often follow a very healthy way of life, avoiding alcohol, which used to be part of the subculture,” journalist Andrei Malosolov, co-founder of Russia’s Fans’ Union, told the BBC.
Indeed, the Russian hooligans in France, thought to number about 150, are so buff that some in the British press speculated they were planted by the security forces, rather like the “little green men” who helped take Crimea away from Ukraine in 2014.
“Every Russian fan club has about 1,000 tough guys, ready to fight at any time, and sometimes they might be used for secret political agendas, but not this time,” Duma Deputy Dmitry Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “I do not believe that the Russian authorities sent these hooligans to fight with English fans. This time, the clubs acted spontaneously.”
In the British Parliament, Home Secretary Theresa May said it was up to the Russian authorities to make sure that the events of the weekend were not going to be repeated, adding that Russian hooligans were “responsible for instigating a good deal of the violence.”
Moscow officials were divided in their opinions about the scandal: Some felt ashamed of these Russian thugs “trained to fight,” according to the French prosecutor in Marseille. Others justified the violence, and almost seemed to relish it: “The English fans defiled the Russian flag! If I saw that, I would not have been able to stop myself, either,” Duma Deputy Vadim Dengin told The Daily Beast.
In what looks like an escalating crisis, the French ambassador to Moscow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry for a dressing-down on Wednesday. “Further stoking of anti-Russian sentiments…could significantly aggravate the atmosphere in Russian-French relations,” the ministry declared.
Meanwhile, Russian State Duma members declared that the soccer scandal was “politically motivated,” staged by the West to embarrass Russia and discredit the country before it hosts the 2018 World Cup, a hugely important event in the Kremlin’s eyes. Russia has planned to invest 540 billion rubles ($8.274 billion) to stage the event. Eleven Russian cities have prepared venues, built hotels, fixed roads, and repaired other infrastructure to get ready for this next World Cup.
Is the Kremlin worried about soccer fans spoiling the country’s reputation? It might be too late for that.
“Nothing can spoil the Kremlin’s reputation more than it is at this point. It was severely damaged long before the brawl in France,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast, adding a sly reference to Russian aggression of another kind—seizing and annexing Crimea: “In Russia you can succeed with 10 beautiful projects, and then one annexation or one brawl of hooligans in Europe destroys it all.”