Russian hooligans face crackdown ahead of World Cup

England fans (Getty Images)
England fans (Getty Images)

Moscow - When Russia were drawn to play England at the Euro 2016 in Marseille, Vladimir knew an opportunity like this wouldn't come again.

The Muscovite had drifted away from the violent football hooligan scene in recent years but the chance to take on the famed English fans was just too tempting.

"There was a myth about the greatness of the English hooligans," the bearded fan told AFP.

"Everyone like me understood that this was the day we needed to show up and prove ourselves."

What unfolded next grabbed headlines around the world: hundreds of Russians rampaged through the streets of Marseille beating up English fans in what local prosecutors described as "hyper-fast and hyper-violent acts."

The scenes of bloodied supporters unleashed fears over gangs of Russian thugs and, most importantly, the threat they could pose visiting fans coming to the country for the World Cup in 2018.

But while the immediate reaction from Russian officials was often one of thinly-disguised pride -- once back home the Russian hooligans soon found that they themselves had become the target.

Spearheaded by the Interior Ministry's Centre "E", which usually deals with extremists and Russia's political opposition, authorities began a barrage of raids, detentions and criminal probes.

Minor disturbances at matches drew harsh reactions, Vladimir said, spurious legal cases were opened and people were placed under house arrest as "hostages"

For fans the message was clear: don't try to repeat anything like Marseille at the World Cup in 2018.

"The police are working so hard that nothing can happen in Russia," Vladimir said. "I am 100 percent sure of this."

'Under constant watch'

Russia's hooligan movement began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and borrowed heavily from football violence in Britain.

Initially it started out as beery brawls between rivel fan "firms" but gradually it morphed into something more serious as those involved ditched booze and headed to the gym to train.

But as the scene got more organised so did the official response and pre-arranged fights between fans were forced off city streets and into secluded forests and woods.

Now, those involved say that even these clashes have begun petering out as the authorities have clamped down even harder.

Ahead of the World Cup, Russia's police remain coy about what they are using against the country's hooligans, but say they are keeping a close eye on the fans.

They have expanded a black list of alleged hooligans banned from attending matches to 191 and insist a system of additional fan IDS will help keep troublemakers away.

"I'll say straight up, citizens who have broken the law at sporting events, been racist, lit flares, broken seats or tried to start fights, they are under our close, constant watch," said senior commander Anton Gusev.

'Not even a fly'

Alexander Shprygin says the clashes in Marseille have brought him nothing but trouble.

In the wake of the violence, Shpyrgin - a former hooligan who headed a Russian fan association - became the face of the trouble after the French authorities deported him twice from the country.

But after his short burst of notoriety Shpyrgin was in for a shock.

Last September Russia's football authorities took the decision to officially suspend cooperation with his organisation over the violence in Marseille.

At the same meeting police dramatically burst into a toilet and detained Shpyrgin in front of TV cameras for questioning over an earlier clash between fans in Moscow.

"That sunny summer day in Marseille is already history but for me it turned my life upside down," he told AFP at a pub in the Russian capital.

While Russian fans had "shown they are now number one in Europe" in Marseille, Shprygin agreed that given the tough response by the authorities there was little chance of any repeat on home soil at the Confederations Cup this June and World Cup next year.

"You could do anything you wanted in Marseille, there weren't any police, they didn't react to anything," he said.

"But in Russia in June 2017 and June 2018 not even a fly will be able to get through - it won't be possible to step out of line."

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