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Richard van Poortvliet: A bang to the head for Russian football

Whenever I write an article about the behaviour of Zenit I always get the feeling it is not going to be the last. In just the last six months I have written about the clubs’ fans causing trouble at a Champions League tie at Austria Vienna and then burning a Borussia Dortmund supporters’ flag in the same competition. However, that pales in comparison to the latest incident, when a fan ran on to the pitch towards the end of the game against Dynamo Moscow on Sunday at the Petrovksy Stadium and punched Vladimir Granat in the head.

Before the match I heard veteran commentator Gennady Orlov, who works for the NTV plus channel say that the two sets of fans, who don’t exactly like each other, had decided to put aside their differences out of respect to the deceased in Ukraine. The only problem was that someone forgot to tell the fans not to target the players either.

With time running out and Zenit’s title chances taking a severe dent after a lacklustre display saw them trailing 4-2, hundreds of their ‘ultras’ climbed over the fence behind the goal, crossed the running track and took up residence beside a dozen photographers behind the advertising hoardings. With a pitch invasion likely at any moment, referee Sergey Ivanov did not really have any other option than to take the players off the field of play with four minutes remaining. The players meandered their way towards the dressing room, without too much fuss, until a rather rotund man without a shirt and wearing a black baseball cap made a beeline towards the nearest Dynamo player he could see, who happened to be Vladimir Granat, one of Russia’s best central defenders.

The supporter produced a right hook, which connected with the back of Granat’s head before the fan was pulled away by a couple of Zenit’s supporters. Dynamo’s dazed captain gingerly made his way back to the dressing room.

Unfortunately we have learnt very little from this latest incident to involve supporters of Zenit St. Petersburg. Predictably the club released a statement saying that such behaviour is unacceptable and that they were in contact with the police to try and catch the perpetrator. However, one interesting point the club did make on their official website is they are going to review their relationship with Zenit’s fan groups. These ‘ultras’ have caused so much trouble over the last few years that the club for Russia’s second city have one of the worst reputations on the continent concerning their supporters. Why it has taken the club so long to come to this conclusion is anyone’s guess.

The long awaited and long overdue supporters law was passed at the start of the year and this incident will be the first major test to see whether it actually works. Just hours after the incident, the Russian Premier League’s Director for Safety, Aleksandr Meytin seemed to concur, saying: “Now is that moment when we need to use the supporters law to its full extent for those who committed the offences and make sure they are banned from attending matches. In any case there are a number of them.”

Meytin believes that a criminal case could be opened, while it is imperative to catch the person who hit Granat in the head. He believes this task will be helped by clear television pictures of the perpetrator and that correct punishments will be administered to that supporter and the club itself.

The supporters’ law was signed in the summer of 2013 and came into effect in January 2014 this year. Those supporters who are caught causing trouble face a 15 thousand rouble fine ($425), while the worst offenders can be banned from attending matches for up to seven years.

The former head coach of Dynamo Moscow, Andrey Kobelev came up with an interesting theory as he gave his thoughts concerning the incident. “These sort of situations have a very serious impact on the image of our championships.

“We need to stop talking about these sort of fans. The more attention they get, the more they see themselves as heros. It’s absolutely necessary to come down really hard on those who misbehaved. Due to the actions of one or a few fans, we are losing faith in our football. What happened to Granat was just crazy.”

While Kobelev does raise an interesting point about not trying to glorify the incident, his attitude of trying to sweep it under the carpet will not help in the long run. The reaction to the incident has shocked millions of football fans across the country and there has been absolute disgust at the actions of those Zenit supporters by their own fans as well. On the contrary the man who hit Granat, who has allegedly been arrested already by police in St. Petersburg, should be made an example of and it is quite possible he could be facing between two and five years in jail for his actions.

Such a punishment would be one of the best things to happen to Russian football in a long term in their battle to combat hooliganism. If the book is thrown at this individual and it is widely publicised in the press then perhaps fans in the future will consider their behaviour and the consequences of it, before looking to cause trouble.

The next weeks will show how this incident is ultimately dealt with and will tell us a lot about just how serious Russia is in trying to rid itself of the ugly stain of hooliganism which continues to tarnish the game in their country.

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