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“Russia and Poland are in top place in the hooligan chart. England has dropped down a long way.”
Andrei Malosolov, Jun 15, 2016

It had gone into something of a hibernating state, but it is clear that the European Football Championship in France is being made an example of by that scourge of sport, the football hooligan.

The modus operandi of such a figure is simple enough; organised, directed and coordinated, they strike at venues, agitate spectators and rile the authorities. They form a fifth column of violence and engagement, finding the activities on the pitch less relevant than what happens off it. Crowds provide the honey pots for their beelike activity. Codes of violent engagement are applied.

In the hooligan cosmos, a pecking order also exists. Just as teams compete for positions in league tables, hooligans also hope they will get the top spot. How they measure this, apart from noise and cracked skulls, is hard to say.

Within such communities, some groups are feared over others. Exploits are celebrated; triumphs are noted with hagiographic dedication. There are also deep seated rivalries, a competitive savagery that sees such figures as Alexander Shprygin, a superstar of the circuit, dominate.

As a supporter of Moscow’s CSKA football club, named Alexei, explained to the BBC, the violence in Marseille “showed who is the most important among hooligans.”

When such a figure initiates attacks, he does not do so by halves. The whole gamut is embraced, a rush of blood and viscera possibly involving death. Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin is even considering whether an attack on two England fans ahead of the 1-1 draw with Russia was attempted murder.

Shprygin was among 20 Russian fans being deported in the wake of the Marseille melees. Three other Russian fans received jail sentences for up to two years. This situation has an inevitable political sting. Sentiments in European sporting circles regarding Russia have not been glowing.

Performances on the athletics track are quizzed as being the outcomes of state-sponsored doping efforts. Some of Russia’s football supporters are deemed the spears by which to press home nationalist intimidation in foreign arenas. The BBC has gone so far as to claim that Shprygin’s All-Russia Supporters Union has the green light of support from the Kremlin, a case of the strongman Vladimir Putin supporting other “strong men”.

The response to the Russian hooligans from home, for that reason, has been mixed. The Russian Football Union has been expressing its regrets, keeping up the necessary appearances. Other officials have preferred to celebrate them as macho warriors, with their deeds those of “real men” (BBC News, Jun 15).

Such individuals see sporting violence as a normal, even necessary activity. “I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting,” claimed Igor Lebedev of the lower house of Russia’s federal assembly and Russia’s Football Union executive committee. “Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!”

Lebedev has gone so far as to argue that the football fan never goes to a match not expecting violence. His ratio on that score is imaginatively high: nine out of ten. In a priestly tone of dispensation, he suggests that Russians “forgive and understand our fans.”

It did not take long for the Russian Foreign Ministry to issue a statement to the effect that further moves upon Russians fans might stoke “anti-Russian sentiments.” Deputy Foreign Minister Arkady Dvorkovich has tried to be reassuring, quoted in the Tass news agency as claiming that various blacklists of suspected hooligans are being drawn up ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

Russia should not be singled out as the ultra bogeyman in this affair. The hooligan league tables continue to have traditional contenders for top mantle. The city of Lille saw 36 arrests on Wednesday, with 16 taken to hospital following violent scrapping by England supporters. They, however, are being left behind.

Such a point has been made by some Russian supporters that they have had excellent teachers in the school of football violence. “In the 70s and 80s everyone would bow down before the English,” explained Alexei. “Now there are different hooligans. These are different times.” The pupils have surpassed the masters.

This different hooligan is a different breed, one seemingly trimmer, and importantly, more sober, than the English type a generation before. They are fitness fanatics who follow what Andrew Malosolov of the Russia’s Fans’ Union considers “a very healthy way of life”.

The ultimate penalty for such behaviour is the penalisation of sport itself. The behaviour of the fans as ambassadors for their team provides the yardstick upon which authorities can manage games.

The sinister events of Euro 2016 suggest that such control may entail disqualification and suspension. Russia has received a suspended disqualification and warning, while England has also been rebuked.

A football tournament without football teams is a sad one indeed, but we are bearing witness to a different world, one where football performance is secondary to an angry, tribal expression of testosterone and machismo.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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