Russian fans attack an England supporter at the Euro 2016 match between the two countries. Photo Credit: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP.
In 1945, George Orwell described sport as “war minus the shooting.”[i] Certainly, that must have been how it appeared on June 11, 2016, in Marseille, France. As their teams were about to play, fans of the national football (soccer) teams of Russia and England brawled across the city, and then again after the match had ended. Russian hooligans also attacked French riot police.[ii] With another major international football tournament set for 2020, Russian hooligans will likely strike again.
Commentators in 2016 were worried not by the incidence of violence—hooliganism and football have a long, intertwined history—but by the manner in which it occurred. The clashes between English and Russian fans were not spontaneous outbreaks of violence. Rather, the Russians came to France, the host nation of Euro 2016, organized and ready for violence.[iii] The fans of various Russian club teams are known to meet each other in the woods to fight.[iv] When the Russian national team plays, they combine forces. On the streets of Marseille, these hooligans avoided wearing symbols to identify themselves as Russian supporters[v] and waited until their English rivals were drunk before attacking.[vi]
Hooliganism around the Russian national team is an expression of nationalist and anti-western sentiments, not violence for its own sake. Russian behavior in Marseille was intended to establish Russian superiority, to show, in the words of one hooligan, “that the English are girls.”[vii] Russian politicians and state media provided tacit support and praise for the hooligans, whom they referred to as ‘our guys.’ “Keep it up!” tweeted one parliamentarian.[viii]
In light of the actions of Russian fans in France, there was some concern about the 2018 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Russia.[ix] Ultimately, the tournament took place without issue. Russian hooligans were kept in check by their government, which hoped to boost its struggling global reputation by hosting a successful World Cup.,[x]
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the peacefulness of the 2018 World Cup will extend to the next European Football Championship, scheduled for summer 2020. Unlike past editions, Euro 2020 will not be hosted by a single country or a small group of neighboring countries. Instead, to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary, the tournament will be held in cities across the continent, from Bilbao to Baku, with the semi-finals and final match to be held in London. Already, six teams of an eventual twenty-four have qualified for the competition. Among them is the Russian national team.
Several factors make it likely that Russian hooliganism will rear its ugly head once more at Euro 2020. The first is the dispersal of the tournament across multiple jurisdictions. That each country hosts fewer matches is likely to mean fewer total resources devoted to security and deterring hooliganism.
Secondly, the Russian national team is likely to be involved in more matches than in 2016. At that tournament, the team performed poorly, eliminated after playing the minimum three games. Since then, it has improved considerably. The team was one of the first to qualify for Euro 2020, More matches will present more opportunities for hooliganism.
Lastly, Russia’s rival teams have also improved. England, eliminated in the round of sixteen in 2016, finished fourth at World Cup 2018, and seems certain to qualify for Euro 2020. London is scheduled to host seven matches, and Glasgow another four. If Russia is involved in any match on British soil, authorities should expect violence—Russian supporters have made it clear that they view the British as their enemies.[xi] Poland, whose fans fought with Russian supporters at Euro 2012, and who compete with the Russians for “top place in the hooligan chart,” has already qualified.[xii] So has Ukraine, a country embroiled in conflict with Russian-backed separatists. Ukrainian and Russian teams have been kept apart in past competitions over fear of violence between their supporters.[xiii] As Russia and its rivals progress in the tournament, the likelihood of their meeting, and conflict between their supporters, grows.
sports are inseparable from politics. It is undisputed that support for
national sports teams is motivated by national pride.[xiv]
As nationalism worldwide grows more violent, national sports will, as well. Authorities
should be ready to see that at Euro 2020.
[i] George Orwell, “The Sporting Spirit,” Tribune, December 14, 1945, https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/the-sporting-spirit/.
[ii] Patrick Reevell, “French Authorities Blame Russian Hooligans for Soccer Violence as Russian TV Cheers Them On,” ABC News, June 13, 2016, https://abcnews.go.com/International/french-authorities-blame-russian-hooligans-soccer-violence-russian/story?id=39820405.
[iv] Sam Borden, “The New Hooligans of Russia,” ESPN The Magazine, June 3, 2018, http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/23659183/world-cup-2018-russia-new-school-hooligan-culture.
[v] “Euro 2016: 150 trained Russian hooligans flew to Marseille to show ‘the English are girls,’” Telegraph Sport, June 13, 2016, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2016/06/13/euro-2016-150-trained-russian-hooligans-flew-to-marseille-to-sho/.
[vi] Patrick Reevell, “French Authorities Blame Russian Hooligans for Soccer Violence as Russian TV Cheers Them On,” ABC News, June 13, 2016, https://abcnews.go.com/International/french-authorities-blame-russian-hooligans-soccer-violence-russian/story?id=39820405.
[vii] “Euro 2016: 150 trained Russian hooligans flew to Marseille to show ‘the English are girls,’” Telegraph Sport, June 13, 2016, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2016/06/13/euro-2016-150-trained-russian-hooligans-flew-to-marseille-to-sho/.
[viii] Andrew Osborn, “Russian hooligans see themselves as Kremlin foot soldiers,” Reuters, June 13, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-soccer-euro-russia/russian-hooligans-see-themselves-as-kremlin-foot-soldiers-idUSKCN0YZ1Z7.
[ix] James Ellingworth, “Russian hooligans in World Cup crackdown after 2016 rampage,” Associated Press, May 29, 2018, https://apnews.com/a14f3ae9b7a74f1dbe961a8b6ad99dc7.
[xi] “Euro 2016: 150 trained Russian hooligans flew to Marseille to show ‘the English are girls,’” Telegraph Sport, June 13, 2016, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2016/06/13/euro-2016-150-trained-russian-hooligans-flew-to-marseille-to-sho/.
[xiii] Dmitriy Rogovitskiy, “UEFA keeps Russian and Ukrainian clubs apart,” Reuters, July 17, 2014, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-soccer-uefa-russia-ukraine/uefa-keeps-russian-and-ukrainian-clubs-apart-idUKKBN0FM1V520140717.
[xiv] Ørnulf Seippel, “Sports and Nationalism in a Globalized World,” International Journal of Sociology 4, no. 1 (2017): 43-61.