Richard van Poortvliet: Russians put the boot into hooliganism

The resumption of the Russian Premier League season is still around six weeks away, as the whole of the country is transfixed ahead of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. With all the media attention focused on the Southern Russian city, one piece of important sporting legislation slipped largely under the radar.

This week, the ‘supporters’ law came into fruition in an attempt by the Russian authorities to try and finally tackle the problem of football hooliganism in the country. It will now be an offence to threaten others at any sporting event in Russia, while throwing objects or deliberately covering one’s face to avoid detection are now outlawed. Also forbidden are flares and weapons – so far so good.

Under the new law, if someone serving a stadium ban is found at a sports event, they can be fined the equivalent of US$765 or detained for 15 days. Police and sports federations will be required to keep lists of violators, while stadium owners must install CCTV systems to identify troublemakers.

On the whole and from past experience, when Russian laws are introduced, they tend to jump from one extreme to the other. I get a similar feeling about the ‘supporters law’. While it is commendable that they are outlawing flares and violent behaviour, banners written in a foreign language will have to be agreed with the stadium authorities in advance. Just imagine a European club travelling to play a Champions League match in Russia, whose supporters bring with them banners written in their native language supporting their team. In theory this will be forbidden under the new law.

It may have taken a decade, but finally a ‘black list’ is going to be created in Russia for convicted hooligans. If this is implemented properly, it could be the most significant piece of legislation to try and combat troublemakers at Russian football grounds. For too long hooligans were free in the knowledge they were almost certainly would not be prosecuted for doing whatever they wanted.

Hopefully this will now change, but one question that has arisen is; who will mange this black list and who will make sure that those banned from attending football matches will not try to gain entry anyway? Will it be the police? The Russian Football Union? The clubs? My worry is that as before, each organization will try and take as little accountability as possible and claim it is the responsibility of the others.

It remeains to be seen how easy it will be to catch hooligans in Russian football stadiums. Given there are only three modern stadiums, the Kazan Arena which was completed last year, the Lokomotiv Stadium and the Khimki Arena, which have decent closed circuit television, this could prove difficult.

In England or Germany, CCTV is so well advanced in stadia in the top flight, that perpetrators can instantly be identified and dealt with accordingly. Trying to install closed circuit television in stadiums like Torpedo’s ground the Eduard Streltsova would be nigh impossible given its configuration.

The clubs have been put in a difficult situation. Matches in the Russian Premier League are poorly attended due to a number of reasons, such as poor stadia, the cold at the start and end of the season. However, the number of security checks certainly don’t help either. Of course the new measures if they work, will help to attract families and particular young children, who are put off going to games due to unsavory elements within the crowds.

There has been talk of introducing fans passports, which would be needed to buy tickets. There are undoubted security benefits for introducing this system, however, this could alienate a number of loyal and peaceful fans, who have no interest in causing trouble, by creating yet another hindrance to attending a football game.

The battle against hooliganism in Russian football is at a crossroads. Legislation has been implemented to try and tackle the problem, but is there enough will amongst the relevant parties to take the necessary responsibility and change Russian football for the better.

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