“Five-seven years ago, thousands of people at the stadium in Luzhniki were chanting ‘White power’ to each other from one stand to another,” says FC CSKA Moscow fan Roberst Ustain in a documentary up on YouTube. “And open Swastika,” he disapprovingly adds, opening his arms in the air as if to unfurl a flag. The Luzhniki is the largest football stadium in Russia. It will host several football matches for the 2018 World Cup, including the June 14 opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The far-right Russian football hooligan has the potential to add a bit of sour symbolism to the most-watched event in the world this year. But it’s unlikely that there’ll be a Swastika sighting in the stands. Russia’s reputation is on the line, after all, and this will mean the strictest checks in place. It’s another matter, the atmosphere in the stadium and on the streets is something that cannot be wholly controlled by authority.
Russian hooliganism came to the fore in the Euro 2016 championships during the team’s clash against England. (Getty Images)
There is some history involved here too. A taste of the volatile resolve of Russian hooligans is their westward trip to Mersailles for the Euro Cup in 2016, where they clashed with English supporters before, during and after the Russia Vs England game in June. The clashes resulted in two English supporters landing in a coma and another getting his Achilles tendon sliced. The provocation was planned. And all this eruption was, apparently, to send a message to the English: “The English always say we are the main football hooligans; we went to show that the English are girls,” said a Russian hooligan who took part in the fighting to a French news agency later.
The incident surely launched Russian hooliganism into global limelight. Maybe, the task they set out for was achieved. Also, at the time, Russian politicians did not show the bother that they began showing after realising the repercussions this would have for the host country for 2018. Russian deputy prime minister, Vitaly Mutko, who was then Russia’s sports minister, claimed the clash was a “set-up” while Igor Lebedev, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament tweeted: “I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite: well-done lads, keep it up!”
Soon after the incident though, some checks were put in place to rein in the hooligans for 2018. The appointment of a so-called fan liaison officer in every club by the Kremlin is an example. Russian authorities have also been conducting ‘preventive arrests’ apart from rounding up suspects and making them sign ‘good behaviour’ undertakings. But even after careful pruning, the sentiment is hard to be contained in full. The xenophobia is entrenched in layers: in firm chants and songs, in partly-masked symbolic banners, in neo-Nazi tattoos...merchandise; a directly objectionable flag is just a kind of ideological advertisement. In March this year, an alleged incident of “monkey chants” (racist jeering) could be heard from the crowd in St Petersburg during the friendly between France and Russia whenever black French players touched the ball. The abuse was also audible on a TV broadcast after the prodigious Paul Pogba scored France’s second goal in a 3-1 win. There have been other such incidents in the past too.
Of course, Russia isn’t the only country where far-right Hooligans put on display the uglier side of football culture. But all eyes and ears are on Moscow for now because of the World Cup. Football hooliganism too doesn’t have only one political shade, there are examples of ‘left-wing’ firms too, as there are of movements (anti-fascist, LGBTQ) which have slowly made some—even if a fraction—of hooligan spaces dynamic. It just so happens that the hyper-performative, adrenal sub-culture is drawn to certain ideologies more easily.