The Russia vs England football match on 11 June will be remembered for something other than just the fighting spirit of the Russian team.
The spotlight was on violence and “scenes of mayhem” as dozens of Russian hooligans charged into a section full of English supporters after the final whistle, “throwing missiles, tearing down flags and fighting with anyone who remained in their way”.
Well-trained hooligans or lack of security?
While Marseille authorities confirmed that a group of “well-trained” Russian hooligans with the deliberate aim of creating disorder were “prepared for ultra-rapid, ultra-violent action”, Russian officials gave a different account of the events.
Maxim Motin, a deputy of the Moscow city Duma, for instance blamed the incidents on the unpreparedness of the French authorities and unsatisfactory organisation in the stadium: “Believe me, if that was a Spartak-CSKA game everything would have been much scarier with such a low level of security as there is in France”.
“The lads defended the honour of their country”
Top Russian football official Igor Lebedev not only played down the violence but praised the fans for their actions: “I do not see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up” – he tweeted.
In an interview given to life.ru, Lebedev further explained the behaviour of Russia fans: “The lads defended the honour of their country and did not let English fans desecrate our motherland. We should forgive and understand our fans”.
Vladimir Markin, a top official from Russia’s Investigative Committee dismissed the accusation that Russia fans were hardened fighters: “They [Europeans] are surprised when they see a real man looking like a man should. They are only used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades”.
Nonetheless, radical comments by Russian football officials are not a new phenomenon.
Alexander Shprygin, founder of the Russian Supporters Union and member of the official Russian FA delegation at Euro 2016 recently demanded that he wanted to “see only Slavic faces in the Russian national team” and claimed that there was “something wrong” with a photo of the French team because it contained “very many” black faces. Mr Shprygin has now been expelled from France.
Meduza reports that prominent Russian sports commentator Vladimir Stognienko was shouted down live on Rossiya 1 TV after correcting the host of the talk show, who had claimed that British fans had initiated the brawl and staged provocations.
Stognienko said it was actually the opposite. The wife of Russian footballer Pavel Pogrebnyak told Stognienko: “Are you even rooting for Russia? This is not how you should be supporting the national team,” which drew a round of applause. Stognienko answered that he supported the Russian team “more than anyone else, but if there’s a problem, we should talk about this problem.”
In an op-ed published in the Russian version of Forbes Magazine, journalist Sergey Medvedev interprets these events and the language that surrounds them in Russian media through the lens of Russia’s behaviour on the international scene.
According to the author, “[Russian] fans in Marseille adequately represent [Russia’s] official policies and the mass consciousness in Russia after Crimea”.
“The kind of hybrid war which is currently so popular”
The author sees a difference between the language surrounding the Russian and the ill-reputed English football hooligans: “If in England after such scandals fans are unanimously condemned by society and politicians, in today’s Russia, football hooligans appear almost as national heroes.”
He concludes that Russian football hooligans are engaged in “the kind of hybrid war which is currently so popular in [Russian] propaganda”, comparing the events in France to “Ukraine [where Russia does not] wage open war, but delegates this to a well-trained group of fighters […] and in Europe, [where Russia] puts its stakes on populism, separatism and on splitting the EU.”