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Richard van Poortvliet: Russians get tough as they wake from a dark football past

Russian football has suffered from a poor image over the last decade, with some justification; however, the last month has been the darkest period in quite a while. The fallout from the racist chants directed at Yaya Toure following Manchester City’s 2-1 victory at the Arena Khimki against CSKA Moscow brought into question Russia’s capability of hosting the 2018 World Cup. However, arguably worse was to follow, as just a few days later, Spartak Moscow fans unveiled a Nazi Swastika banner, which is outlawed in Russia, at an away game with Shinnik Yaroslavl. Also in that match, the visiting fans fought running battles with the police, which led to 78 arrests.

It seems as though the footballing authorities in Russia are starting to get tough. The Yaya Toure incident fell within UEFA’s jurisdiction, as this was a Champions League match and CSKA will be forced to close one of their stands for their encounter with Bayern Munich. However, Spartak, in some of the strongest sanctions ever handed out, were forced to play two high profile games, against Lokomotiv Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg, behind closed doors.

The club was fined $18,500 for the incidents in Yaroslavl, but the biggest knock-on effect was the loss of income from having no spectators at their games. Speaking to the Russian state news agency, RIA Novosti, the club’s chairman, Leonid Fedun stated, “Spartak will lose 45 million rubles [$1.4 million] because of this situation, and this is a big blow to our budget. Something should be done with the fans. Now there is a fight against the clubs, but not the fans.” The final statement from Fedun is an interesting one, which could see attempts by the Russian clubs to take decisive measures to tackle the problem of racism and hooliganism. It has finally hit home to the likes of Spartak Moscow, the financial effects that their fans behaviour is having on the clubs.

This could be the necessary catalyst to help change football in Russia for the better. It is the duty of the Russian Football Union and the Russian Football Premier League to impose sanctions. However, it is the duty of the clubs to ensure that their fans behave.

In the last three years, there have been 14,000 arrests made at sporting events in Russia. The vast majority of theses were at football matches and it is a staggering amount, given that the number of supporters attending grounds in the country, is significantly less than in England, Spain or Germany. Last season in England, there were 2,363 football related arrests with around 37 million fans attending games, or one in every 15 thousand fans was detained. These are quite startling statistics, showing how the problem is being tackled in England and putting the seriousness of the problem in Russia into perspective.

It is interesting to look at the example of Zenit St. Petersburg, a club, which has had its fair share of problems with hooliganism and especially racism. I have been attending Zenit’s Champions League games for a number of years and one incident against APOEL stood out last year. In the second half, the home team’s fans let off so many flares that the game had to be stopped, as visibility was minimal, while there were threats that the game could be abandoned if the supporters did not relent.

The Russian club were subsequently fined, while midfielder Roman Shirokov, never one to shy away from speaking his own mind, labelled his team’s fans ‘morons’. However, since this episode, I cannot recall seeing a flare going off at the Petrovski Stadium during a match in Europe’s premier club competition. What seemed like an impossible problem, has been cured for the time being, no doubt through discussions between the club and the Zenit’s various fan groups – something that needs to happen with considerably more regularity within Russian football.

During the 70’s and 80’s English fans when following their clubs in Europe struck fear into the hearts of the local population, even if they had no intent in causing violence. The reputation of thousands of drunk and unruly fans preceded them. The country has done an admiral job of trying to clean up its act, through no small part played by the clubs and now unfortunately it is now English fans who are often on the receiving end of violence when travelling to follow their teams in Europe.

The same attitudes could soon, if they have not already, be given to Russian fans, given their less than exemplary record domestically. Finally it seems as though the Russian government is beginning to realise just how serious a problem this is. There is already the power to ban hooligans from six months to seven years, which came into force in the summer. To make sure this is enforced, a new law is due to come into effect in January and if someone serving a stadium ban is found at a sports event, they can be fined up to $770, or detained for 15 days.

Considering $770 is around half the average monthly salary for a Muscovite, or almost an average monthly salary for someone outside the capital, this may make those intent on carrying out violence, think twice before carrying out their actions.

Only time will tell if Russia is fully intent on trying to tackle problems of racism and hooliganism. Unfortunately I feel that there will be quite a few more high profile incidents, before there is any serious change. However, given the fact that these problems are finally being addressed by the government and by the clubs, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.