Russian Hooliganism Looms Over Euro 2012
Things could certainly be worse.
A few years ago, gangs of soccer hooligans rampaged through the streets of Moscow, randomly attacking dark-skinned passers-by in a burst of violence sparked by the murder of an ethnic Russian soccer fan by a native of the North Caucasus region. Dozens of people were wounded and several killed including an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan who was stabbed in the chest at a crowded bus stop. He bled to death as several bystanders looked on.
Such violence, if not always on such a large scale, has become common in Russia wherever soccer fans gather and now looms like a cocked fist over Euro 2012, Europe’s premier soccer event, which is currently being held in Poland and Ukraine.
This week, UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, fined the Russian association $150,000 and threatened to deduct 6 points in its qualifying group for the next championship tournament after dozens of Russian fans pounced on stadium ushers as they attempted to detain one in their crowd for tossing a firework. Four ushers were briefly hospitalized.
Soccer officials are also investigating whether Russian fans directed racist remarks at a black player on the Czech team and have threatened further disciplinary measures after violent clashes between Polish and Russian fans that caused property damage and several injuries hours before their teams met on the field Tuesday.
And there are over two weeks left in the tournament, with the Russian team capable of advancing deep into it.
Soccer, of course, is apparently inseparable from hooliganism, and over the years fans of various countries have made sideline brawling an ugly and occasionally deadly sport in itself. Now, Russia has entered the fray.
These days, preparation for a match in Russia often seems like mobilization for war. On game days, riot police, burly men in blue camouflage and black helmets, ring the stadium often three and four rows deep, as mounted police patrol the perimeter.
It is a sight reminiscent of English soccer matches in the 1980s, when even a huge police presence could not always prevent hooligans from ransacking entire towns, looting shops and beating opponents and passers-by.
In Russia, large-scale soccer rioting is relatively rare. Die-hard fans, or fanaty, tend to be more mercantile when it comes to fighting.
“They are often hired out for money and sent to go beat up people,” said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova Center, a Moscow-based group that monitors extremist movements.
Businessmen have been known to employ them to resolve disputes that have gotten out of hand, and political figures occasionally use their services to deal with outspoken opponents, Verkhovsky said.
Members of a fan group called the Gladiators associated with the soccer club Spartak Moscow have long been rumored to have ties to pro-Kremlin youth groups, whose large rallies in Moscow are frequently attended by thick young men in black track pants acting as security.
When Oleg Kashin, a prominent journalist and outspoken Kremlin critic, was severely beaten in Moscow in 2010 — both of his legs were broken and he lost a finger in the incident — suspicion immediately fell on soccer hooligans hired by government-friendly forces. No one has been charged.
Still, it is clear that such groups are not fully under the government’s control. The rioting and racist attacks that occurred in December 2010 began after gangs of youths began throwing signal flares and other projectiles at the police, eventually forcing them to back down. The incident clearly caught the Kremlin off guard. Vladimir V. Putin, who was prime minister at the time and is now president, took the unusual step of meeting with the leaders of soccer fan clubs to defuse tensions.