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In Good Conscience

Applaud France for tackling the Euro hoodlums

Bravo, France. The country is trying to host a football tournament in nine cities under the security lockdown of explicit terror threats in the wake of the November carnage in its capital city, Paris.

Then English drunks and Russian thugs decide to smash up parts of the Old Port in Marseille and onwards to Lille in northern France.

Uefa frowns, slaps a monetary fine on Russia after the stadium mayhem at the Velodrome in Marseille, and issues a warning that next time, Russia will be expelled.

As it happens, Mother Russia's team is rushing towards the exit by playing poorly on the field. But that, alas, isn't the issue.

Going to the games to cause grievous bodily harm, and beating a defenceless 51-year-old Englishman in the street so that his brain is damaged and police have to resuscitate his heart goes beyond so-called hooliganism.

What the Russians and English visited upon France in the streets and the stadium was by any measure lawless. In the circumstances, with 90,000 French police and armed forces primed to safeguard the tournament and protect 2.5 million expected fans, it is irresponsible, despicable and utterly stupid.

A Marseille prosecutor spoke out loud about 150 Russian "fighters " who were "highly trained and hyper-violent". A Russian had even taped and uploaded clips of his mayhem on the streets.

England (but not, note, the Irish or the Welsh) still has pockets of beer-fuelled louts. And the British government sent police spotters to help France identify the troublemakers, and help jail them.

From Russia, however, comes nothing like love.

Without taking sides over the brawling in the cobbled streets, what took place in the Velodrome after England beat Russia last Sunday was like nothing that even us sadly experienced hooligan watchers had seen before.

The Russian thugs, some of them wearing face masks, others as bare-chested as those famous shots of President Vladimir Putin, were certainly in better shape physically than the soft-bellied Brits abroad.

They looked like an army. They attacked English fans, indiscriminately. Young, old, man, woman, child, anyone and everyone who could be punched or kicked was.

And the English, in their terror, risked further injury by leaping a wall with a 3m drop the other side.

Sport? Not even remotely.

I will be honest. Because there were no arrests in the stadium, and very little stewarding or police intervention there, I feared the French authorities would lament the misbehaviour and with a Gallic shrug ask what they could do if the "guests" were unruly.

I was wrong. Within days, France had ushered the accused English hooligans through court and jailed five for throwing bottles and one for violence. Those were exemplary sentences of a few months, just enough to show that France will not tolerate mindless violence, and then to send them home to England.

But here's the shock. France then tackled the Russians who thought they had got away with it because none of theirs had been arrested on the streets or in the stadium in Marseille.

A Marseille prosecutor spoke out loud about 150 Russian "fighters " who were "highly trained and hyper-violent". A Russian had even taped and uploaded clips of his mayhem on the streets.

Then on Tuesday, police intercepted a bus carrying 43 Russians from Marseille to Lille for the second games. By Thursday, courts had handed down sentences of two years, 18 months and 12 months to three Russians named as Alexey Yerunov, Sergey Gorbachev and Nikolay Morozov.

Another 20 Russians, including one Alexander Shprygin, were held in custody, pending deportation. Shprygin is head of the All-Russia Supporters Union, which reportedly is backed by the Kremlin and which has Far Right affiliations.

Back in Moscow, the Russian government called in the French ambassador and admonished France for the "stoking of anti-Russian sentiments". A highly placed Kremlin official praised the "real men" who fought for Russian honour in Marseille.

Some of the Russian fighters themselves talked to journalists of showing the English that they are no longer the cream of hooligans around Europe. One said all that they knew of crowd violence they had learnt off England in the 1970s and 1980s.

Etc, etc.. hard men kicking the butts and the reputation of those warped-minded English toughs. Or sons of the criminals who once called themselves kings of the hooligan courts.

In Britain, the problem manifested itself on a tribal basis: My club kicks your club.

In Russia, something more sinister seems afoot. Various observers in Marseille called the organised, hardcore Russians a paramilitary school of hooliganism. Not armed, but muscled and putting in mouthguards before they went out to fight.

Then, out of Moscow, came the denunciation by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of detention of Russian football fans as "absolutely unacceptable".

Among the stories put out and denied by Russia is that charter flights were made available to transport the hooligans to France to disrupt Euro 2016. These in turn are dismissed as the "information warfare" of the media.

At first glance, it makes no sense. Why would Russia, with the 2018 World Cup around the corner, want to disrupt an event in which it is taking part, albeit with very little prospect of doing so with any degree of distinction?

Maybe that is the point. Russia, and other eastern European nations, have a dreadful record of racial intolerance around football. Unless that is tackled more than appears to be the case, it is going to be highlighted as the hosting of the World Cup gets nearer.

In the meantime, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) last night carried out its threat to exclude Russia from the upcoming Olympic Games because of the country's alleged state-sponsored doping.

Russia had pre-empted the announcement by saying it was ready to do everything from a legal point of view to defend its athletes if they are banned from the Rio Games.

There is a feeling that Russia only plays games by its own rules. And it was brave, indeed, of the French to take them on and say no more, not in our land.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Applaud France for tackling the Euro hoodlums'. Print Edition | Subscribe