THERE have been disturbing scenes in France during Euro 2016, with some predictable skirmishes tarnishing the competition. We have become accustomed to football hooliganism involving England, but equally concerning has been the involvement of a more indiscriminate type of violence that has been vicious in its execution. Somebody could get killed.
Russian fans have been very visibly involved in some brutal attacks on rival fans. If there is a code of conduct in this unfortunate element of football culture, it has been well and truly broken by Russia’s paramilitary hooligan network.
The portents are not good, for Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup is just two years off and getting closer by the day. The already dubious selection of Russia is looking more and more like a huge mistake by FIFA. As it stands, suggestions of corruption in the process, made by a now suspect administration in Switzerland, really poses the question if the World Cup should be taken away from both Russia and Qatar. Moreover, there is uncertainty surrounding the very structure and ethics of Russian sport after its athletes were banned from competing in the Olympics this year and a well- known tennis player ran into similar trouble.
The international community has to be careful not to make Russia some form of pariah. The country’s relationship with the west is not good at present and there are fears that a new kind of cold war could develop with Putin and co. – the problem is the world is so interconnected these days that problems with Russia cannot be discounted so easily. Some of its companies, such as Gazprom, have a big stake in European business activity. It is in everyone’s best interest to find a workable solution, even to the most acute problems.
Football violence was one of the reasons why England was not awarded a major competition until 1996. Indeed, UEFA banned English clubs from European competition after more than a decade of bad behaviour, so nobody should be getting holier than thou. But there is a growing fear that with the World Cup heading for Russia, FIFA could be serving up a veritable smorgasbord for Russian thugs preying on overseas visitors.
That’s if anyone decides to make the trip to World Cup 2018 – BBC commentator Alan Green has said he will not travel after his horrendous experience when he visited in 2008 for the Champions League Final. Brazil, with all its social problems and ailing economy, still welcomed one million visitors to the 2014 competition. Depending on where you get your information, Moscow has between four and 17 million visitors per year. They are expecting an influx and in in 2015, 5,000 new hotel rooms were created.
Football fans that have visited, for example, Moscow, have recounted stories of hooligans approaching mobs of Chelsea and Manchester United supporters and inviting them for a fight along the lines of, “around the corner- 50 of you, 50 of us in 10 minutes”. Racism is also rife in Russian football whether they admit it or not. There have been enough examples of crowd racism to be aware that a black face is not easily welcomed in a Russian ground. It’s difficult to agree with UN Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, Yuri Boychenko when he says there is no denial, but a “lack of understanding”. Come on Yuri, this is 2016.
But people in authority seem to be either scared to admit, or just ignorant of, what’s going on. In reaction to the violence in France, Russian MP and Football Association executive, Igor Lebedov, urged the fans to “keep it up” and added, “I don’t see anything terrible in fans fighting”. Furthermore, Andrei Malosolov, co-founder of Russia’s Fans’ Union, was quoted as saying, “Don’t the Russians deserve respect for their fearlessness…they have beat the citizens of a country that has always been the enemy of Russia.” This smacks of cold war mistrust and suspicion. Is this really the tone of a country preparing to welcome the world to its front parlour?
This sort of tone does not bode well for the future, certainly not the World Cup. But this is a country that has many problems at the moment. As well as its troubled economy, one that is over-reliant on oil, crime is on the increase and the country is becoming more and more isolated in the aftermath of Ukraine.
Despite this very uneasy backdrop, World Cup preparations are, according to official sources, on track for 2018. A year ago, reports revealed that Arsenal shareholder Alisher Usmanov had helped the government get rid of its obligation to sacked coach Fabio Capello and that Russia had slashed its 2018 budget.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has said that Russia’s economic problems will have no bearing on the World Cup and predicted that 2018 will be “the best World Cup ever”. The competition will be spread across 11 cities, some of which may not be best suited for football support. The Russian domestic game, at its highest level, has an average gate of around 11,000 – quite small given the size of the population. Of the Moscow clubs, only Spartak enjoy what you would call decent crowds, averaging some 25,000. St. Petersburg’s Zenit (stadium pictured), arguably the most progressive of Russian clubs, average 17,000. But some World Cup locations, such as Yekaterinburg and Saransk, may not turn out in force to watch as neutrals.
That’s another issue, the main concern has to be how Russia welcomes supporters from across the football spectrum – whether they are English, Polish, Nigerian, German, Japanese or Chinese. Like the Olympics, the World Cup is a shop window. It will not be the first time that a politically ostracised country has been the centre of attention in a major sporting event. In 1936, the world went to Berlin aware of the political reputation of an extreme regime. Before the games, Germany “cleaned up” the streets, supressed any unrest and gave an image to the world of a calm and well-run country – at least on the surface. One would assume that Putin will do everything in his power to clamp-down on the hooligans to ensure the competition goes off without a hitch. There is already talk of a huge security operation. Sadly, there is also a lot of careless talk – it’s not costing lives, but it is damaging credibility.