A member of Russia’s parliament has come up with an unorthodox way to use violence to maker soccer games more peaceful for fans. His suggestion? Legalize hooliganism and turn it into a sport.
Igor Lebedev, who is also on the board of the Russian Football Union, says that organized fights could attract huge numbers of fans, a suggestion that comes days before Manchester United is to play FC Rostov in the Europa League Round of 16 in Russia and on the heels of a BBC documentary that revealed that Russian gangs are planning a “festival of violence” at the World Cup in Russia next year.
“Russia would be a pioneer in a new sport,” Lebedev said in a statement on the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia website (via the Telegraph). “Fans arrive, for example, and start picking fights. And they get the answer — challenge accepted. A meeting in a stadium at a set time.”
Lebedev suggested that the brawls would consist of teams of 20 unarmed fighters in an arena filled with fans and would turn “aggression in a peaceful direction” and make fans who travel to games safer.
History, both distant and recent, shows that hooliganism is nothing new. English, French and Tunisian supporters clashed in 1998 when France hosted the World Cup and nearly 200 English supporters were arrested in Euro 2000 in Belgium after a near-riot before a game against Germany. Last summer, Russian and English fans clashed during UEFA Euro June in Marseille and officials threatened to throw both teams out of the tournament. Just last weekend, fans broke through fences and threw smoke bombs as they fought during a league game between CKSA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg in Moscow.
That’s an extension of the sort of violence that erupted in Marseille last year, when Lebedev tweeted that there was “nothing wrong with fans fighting” and added “keep up the good work.” Andrei Malosolov, a radio journalist and former RFU spokesman, praised the fans’ fitness levels and “stylish” look. “Are the Russians not worthy of respect for their fearlessness?” he said (via the BBC). “At the very least, they gave a kicking to citizens of a country that is, both historically and geopolitically, Russia’s greatest enemy.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the fighting as a “disgrace,” but added to laughter, “I don’t know how 200 Russian fans could beat several thousand of the British.”
The violence erupted even before the soccer match began, with arrests and injuries from the clashes, according to the BBC. Eyewitnesses told the Telegraph that some English fans had chanted “ISIS, where are you?” while roaming Marseille, which is home to a large population of North African descent.
“We need to keep it in context. There are thousands of England supporters who will come here and have a fantastic time,” a British policeman supervising English fans in France told the BBC. “There is a small minority who drink too much and get involved in some anti-social behavior.”
The recent BBC documentary “Russia’s Hooligan Army” isn’t likely to ease immediate or long-range concerns in its examination of the violence that left more than 100 people injured in Marseille before the game between England and Russia. “It was like a war scene,” said Craig Lyons, a fan, in the documentary. “The six that I went with, there was a guy who had served in Iraq, he said he was more scared there than he ever was in war. It was like they wanted to kill people. They didn’t just want to beat them up; they wanted to kill people. They wanted to inflict as much injury on these people as they possibly could.”
One unidentified Russian football fan claimed in the documentary that the English are a particular target because they “are the forefathers of hooliganism” and promised World Cup mayhem. “There is a stretch of forest next to the stadium. It’s adjacent to the stadium so people can hide in the forest, go for a swim and arrange ambushes,” he said. “Basically, do anything they like to do. For some it will be a festival of football, for others it will be a festival of violence.”
Although UEFA, FIFA’s monitoring organization and the group Football Against Racism in Europe announced last summer that Russian fans were planning to create “significant fear” at the 2018 World Cup, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said that he was “not at all concerned” about the possibility of violence at World Cup.
Against that backdrop, the United Kingdom’s Home Office warned Man U fans planning to travel 4,000 miles for the game Thursday in Rostov about crime and hooliganism.
“Although there is no indication that British nationals or interests have been specific targets,” it said, ” attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by foreigners. You should remain vigilant in all public places, including tourist sites and crowded areas, particularly where access is not controlled, e.g. open-air events and markets, and in major transport hubs.”