Russian officials blame security for problems and praise fighting fans

• Reports of group travelling to Marseille to fight England fans dismissed
• ‘It’s true some Russian fans rushed English sector but it was nothing bad’

Russian officials have played down the violence over the weekend in Marseille – and in some cases even praised the fans involved. One top football official said the hooligans had defended the country’s honour and should be forgiven, while a top law enforcement official suggested Europe was “too gay” to know what real men look like.

I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting,” Igor Lebedev wrote on Twitter. “Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!”

Lebedev, who sits on the executive committee of the Russian football union, is an MP from the nationalist Liberal Democratic party and the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament.

“I don’t understand those politicians and officials who are criticising our fans. We should defend them and then we can sort it out when they come home,” Lebedev wrote in a series of tweets.

Lebedev’s comments were extreme but reflected a general mood of defiance in Russia over the violence. There has been a whisper of condemnation but it has been drowned out by very loud complaints that the apportioning of blame is unfair, with England fans mainly responsible, as well as not a little amount of gloating over the fact that Russia fans supposedly “won” the clashes.

Vladimir Markin, a top official at the country’s investigative committee, scoffed at suggestions that some Russians involved in the violence were hardened fighters who had come especially to fight: “They are surprised when they see a real man looking like a man should. They’re only used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades,” Markin wrote on Twitter.

Maxim Motin, a member of the Moscow city parliament who was in Marseille supporting the Russia team, told TV Rain that there was “nothing criminal or unacceptable” about the behaviour of Russian fans. He blamed the clashes on poor organisation in the stadium: “Believe me, if that was a Spartak-CSKA game everything would have been much scarier with such a low level of security as there is in France.”

Motin downplayed the clashes at the final whistle: “After the game finished it’s true that some Russian fans rushed the English sector and chased them a bit but it was nothing bad. I’ll repeat, there was nothing out of order. It’s all rumours.”

However, there appears to have been a contingent of Russia fans who travelled to Marseille with the specific goal of fighting England fans. One Russian who claimed to be involved in the violence told Agence France Presse that about 150 of the “strongest” Russian hooligans had flown into Marseille with the specific aim of proving to the England fans the Russians were the stronger fighters.

On social media networks, Russian fans shared photographs of apparent “trophies” seized from England supporters, including a number of England flags waved triumphantly by Russian fans who had hidden their faces. There were even posts on online marketplace forums offering bloodstained England flags for sale.

Lebedev told the news agency “In nine out of 10 cases, football fans go to games to fight, and that’s normal. The lads defended the honour of their country and did not let English fans desecrate our motherland. We should forgive and understand our fans.”

On a fan forum on the social network Vkontakte, with 240,000 members, one fan posted a poem that included the lines: “Only Russians are warriors in Marseille, the British are all empty words. Now the whole world knows you can’t scare us with numbers. There are no authorities for us. Brits: you’re as bad as the Poles. We are the strongest.”

Many Russian hooligans model themselves on the English hooligan “firms” of the 1970s and 80s and see fighting at the games as a kind of sport. Earlier this year, Russian investigators said they wanted to slap legal bans on several notorious fan groupings before the 2018 World Cup.

In December, a number of Russian hooligan groupings drew up a new unofficial code of conduct, stating that fights should only be started with other hooligans and that people lying on the ground should not be attacked.

Andrei Malosolov, a football journalist and former press secretary of the Russian football union, wrote in a column that if the Russia team showed as much passion as their fans, they would have long ago become European champions. “I think that whatever the possible consequences and investigations the Russians face, we should be proud and say at least a few positive words about our Russian fans,” wrote Malosolov.

“For the last 40 years, the English tactics at international games have been the same: a huge crowd gathers in one area, smash it up, give all the bars their half-yearly profit, create all imaginable troubles and then go back to their islands with a hideous hangover,” he added. This time, however, the Russians had shown them who was boss. Malosolov said the Russian fans “deserved respect” given that 250 of them had fought off “tens of thousands of adult, aggressive, drunk English fans”.

Lebedev said it was unfair that Russian fans were being targeted for criticism when it was England fans who had begun the violence, and also noted that there had been violence involving other fans at the tournament, including before the match between Poland and Northern Ireland.

“Our fans are far from the worst; it’s unclear why a lot of media are trying to say our fans’ actions were shameful. You should be objective. If there had been no provocation from English fans, it’s unlikely our fans would have got into fights in the stands.”

The Russian response is likely to raise huge concern, given that Russia is due to host the World Cup in two years.

The only criticism of the fans has come from the sports minister, Vitaly Mutko. He initially downplayed the clashes, saying the media had exaggerated them, but later admitted it was right for Uefa to bring disciplinary proceedings against Russia and condemned the clashes. “It’s clear that some people didn’t come here to watch football. They’ve covered their faces and then brought shame on their country,” he said.

Mutko was criticised for standing on the pitch after the final whistle and appearing to egg on Russian fans, only metres from where clashes with England fans were taking place. Lebedev suggested that if Mutko had been in the stands, he would have joined in the fighting.

“We ought to thank him for not being indifferent to football and for the fact that he doesn’t just get involved in the sporting side but also gives a lot of attention to work with the supporters … I personally think that if Mutko had been with the fans in the stands and was not an official, he would have also have got into the fight with the England fans because they provoked it.”


Shaun Walker in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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