In a Moscow pub decorated with British football memorabilia, a Russian supporter of local side CSKA was happy last week to reassure English fans planning to travel to this summer’s World Cup. Konstantin, or Kostya for short, says he doubts there will be violence because the toughest Russian hooligans have already lost their taste for fighting England supporters.
“It’s like being a mountain climber,” said Kostya, a member of one of the Russian capital’s prominent CSKA “firms”, after recalling how a group of Russian fans smashed through a contingent of English fans in Marseille in June 2016, using extreme violence. “Once you’ve reached the summit, you don’t do it again. There’s no point in beating them again. So they don’t have to be afraid to come to Russia, nothing’s going to happen.”
Kostya said he was in Marseille during Euro 2016 but did not take part in the fighting. He said that Russia supporters had always wanted to take on the England fans, who had a status bolstered by popular films and books. It was a question of pride and reputation, he said, like a competition for the “world’s strongest hooligan”.
Ultimately, he said, the Marseille battles had amounted only to a hollow victory because the aftermath brought a severe crackdown on Russian hooligans from police before the World Cup.
The summer of 2018 does not feel like the most auspicious moment for the eyes of the world to be directed towards Russia. For many England fans, talk of the World Cup in Moscow has been soured by those clashes in 2016, as well as incidents of racism, and a litany of major international disputes, from the conflict in Ukraine to the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, which the British government has blamed on the Kremlin.
Geopolitical tensions and a weak pound have already driven down British tourism in Russia. Maya Lomidze, the executive director of the Russian Association of Tour Operators, told the Observer that the number of British tourists had dropped by an average of 10% each year since 2014.
The last month has brought fresh incidents. A number of journalists reported hearing monkey chants directed at several of France’s black players – Ousmane Dembélé, N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba – during a friendly in St Petersburg against Russia last week. Both Fifa and Russia have launched investigations.
And then there is the behaviour of England supporters abroad. Twenty-five were arrested after clashing with police in Amsterdam before their friendly with the Netherlands last month. Some threw beer bottles at police. It all looks a bit volatile. Yet Russian journalists, commentators, and even hooligans here scoff when asked about the possibility of serious violence this June.
“No offence to the French police,” said Dmitry Navosha, the head of the respected independent website Sports.ru, making reference to the mayhem in Marseille, “But the Russian police hold big sporting events with a lot more personnel and they are a lot tougher.”
In Russia, for instance, it’s not unusual on match day for more than a thousand riot police, colloquially called “cosmonauts” for their heavy helmets, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder all the way from the metro to the nearest football stadium. Alcohol sales are banned in entire neighbourhoods.
Several of those who spoke to the Observer made reference to the relatively incident-free Manchester United and Liverpool fixtures in the Champions League in Russia last autumn. (There are rumours that CSKA fans may come to next week’s match against Arsenal in T-shirts that read “Novichok-Tour 2018: To be continued”. But police may not deem that an arrestable offence.)
“There’s a lot of political talk ahead of the tournament,” said Viktor Gusev, a prominent sports commentator who will be covering the matches in June. “But I think that when the matches actually start that’s all going to go into the background.”
More than a decade has passed since Russia opened its bid to host the 2018 World Cup. In 2010, Vladimir Putin, giving a rare speech in English, said he was “honoured from bottom of my heart” that the country had been chosen to stage it. At that time, the president was Dmitry Medvedev, Russia was recovering from the 2008 financial crisis and oil prices averaged more than $70 per barrel. The World Cup decision was made “long before the critical phase of confrontation with the west”, Navosha said.
Fast forward eight years, and much has changed. Relations between London and Moscow are at their worst since the cold war. Putin has lost patience with the west. And it doesn’t seem like a successful World Cup can do much to change that.
To a certain degree, the tournament is a relic from a bygone, slightly more innocent past, when Putin might still have believed that Russia could woo the west by successfully putting on prestige sporting events and eventually be accepted into the club of great nations as an equal. That clearly no longer interests him.
But the tournament will go on. Twelve venues in 11 cities are hosting matches this summer, including uncommon tourist destinations such as Saransk and Rostov. From an infrastructure standpoint, the endeavour is even more imposing than the Winter Olympics, which cost the government an estimated $50bn. Indeed infrastructure – with some stadiums still not ready, despite being due to hold matches in just three months – can be a touchy subject: Russian officials still bristle when they recall criticisms from foreign journalists over the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics (a BBC photograph of a single bathroom stall with two toilets raised particular ire).
The World Cup, meanwhile, would show a successful mastery over Russia’s vast expanses and one of its traditional problem areas: transport. It would also carry symbolic value.
“I think the original idea was a demonstration of Russia’s greatness for both the outside world and a domestic audience,” Navosha said.
As to the football itself, Russians are hedging their bets. Perhaps Russian football’s greatest moment in the last decade came in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008, when a young squad boasting a pre-Arsenal Andrei Arshavin, scored twice in the final minutes of extra time to win a thriller against the Netherlands. In St Petersburg, thousands of fans jubilantly poured out of bars and cafes onto the streets as though Russia had just won the World Cup.
Russia haven’t made it past the group stages in international competition since then. Gusev, the commentator, saidthat Russia’s youngest generation had not yet produced new stars, and that this was the weakest side the country had fielded “since I was a boy”.
“The Russian joke goes ‘so who are you going to root for after the group stages?’” Gusev said. When it came to club football, he said, he guessed around 80% of fans also watched the English Premier League.
Despite the violence in Marseille in 2016, there is something of a reverence for British hooligan culture, or a mythicised version of it, in Russia. Russian “firms” often give themselves British names, for instance.
“I don’t know if you get this in the UK, but these Russian ultras, the ones who don’t get football without fighting, it’s an imitation, almost a caricature of the British hooligan subculture,” Navosha said. “It’s like in [hardman author] Dougie Brimson, in films such as Green Street or The Football Factory.” Kostya, the football fan, grew up in a military family near Moscow and went to his first CSKA game nearly two decades ago.
Before the police beefed up their presence, he said, networks of CSKA fans would link up on game days and scour the city “trying to find the biggest group of Spartak guys to fight them”.
Now, many of the fights were pre-planned and held in forests, he said. They were often attended by a new breed of Russian hooligan who eschews alcohol and often goes through mixed martial arts or other combat training.
“Fighting in the forest is not hooliganism,” said Kostya, who said he did not participate in those fights. “The point for me is to go to some country or city, drink, have some fun, and if someone is aggressive, we give them the answer. And that’s it.”
Fights have also become more dangerous. Losing could land you in hospital for several months, Kostya said. (In 2016, the French police said the violence had been “almost paramilitary”.)
The police response had been aggressive, Kostya said, with known brawlers receiving “prophylactic visits” and being forced to sign contracts saying that they would stay away from other hooligans. Others have reported searches at their homes and arrests. It has been called unprecedented.
“I think it will be quiet,” Kostya said of the coming summer. “I really want normal fans to come to the country, to enjoy the culture, enjoy the travel.”