EURO 2016

Red flags raised over rogue Russians

This file photo taken on June 18 shows Russia's football fans leader Alexander Shprygin (center) answering journalists questions at the international airport Sheremetevo near Moscow after being expulsed from France after violent clashes with England
This file photo taken on June 18 shows Russia's football fans leader Alexander Shprygin (center) answering journalists questions at the international airport Sheremetevo near Moscow after being expulsed from France after violent clashes with England fans in Marseille. PHOTO: AFP

Fifa backs 2018 World Cup hosts after rowdy supporters in France leave critics concerned

MOSCOW • Russia's footballers failed to leave a mark on Euro 2016 but brutal violence by hardcore hooligans in France sparked fears about the World Cup that Russia will host in two years.

Images of Russians in organised groups in Marseille and Russian far-right football fan chief Alexander Shprygin taunting French authorities with his tweets before being expelled shocked many in Europe.

With the end of the European Championship, security experts are turning warily to the 2018 World Cup even though it is a prestige project for President Vladimir Putin, whose government has insisted that no off-the-field disorder will mar the event.

"We will do everything to make sure that the teams and the supporters feel good and secure," Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who also heads Russia's football association, told journalists.

Mr Putin on Monday signed off on a law that tightens controls at games and will see the Interior Ministry publish online a black list of supporters banned from matches.

The President also set up a centralised headquarters for the safety operations at the World Cup under the FSB security agency's control.

World football governing body Fifa has sought to back Russia's organisation of the event.

"The 2018 World Cup will be a great treat for every visitor who comes to Russia," Fifa secretary-general Fatma Samoura said at a recent press conference in Moscow.

Samoura said all sides had "observed France" and lessons from the tournament there this summer would be taken on board to make sure fans in Russia "enjoy a great football festival in a safe environment".

But critics say Russian authorities have consistently failed to take issues plaguing their game, like hooliganism and racism, seriously, with some at the top playing down or even condoning fan brutality.

France jailed three Russians and deported more than 20 others after prosecutors said hardcore hooligans went on a "hunt" for England supporters in Marseille. The clashes left 35 people injured, with two England fans in a coma.

Russia was formally warned by Uefa that it would be thrown out of Euro 2016 after its fans went on a rampage in the stadium following their opening game.

But the reaction from Russian authorities was muted and when condemnation did come, it was often grudging. Instead, most tended to blame the French police and English fans, rather than their own supporters, for the violence.

Mr Putin was met by cheers and applause at a conference packed with high-ranking officials when he mischievously said he could not understand "how 200 of our fans could beat up several thousand English".

Moscow now seems keen to see the brutal scenes of violence in France forgotten as it seeks to avoid worries overshadowing the build-up to the World Cup.

Even Russia's controversial fan association chief Shprygin - who was among those expelled from France - has started playing nice.

"English, French, Polish, all should come to Russia," Shprygin, who has been linked with far-right groups, told the press after returning to Russia.

"We want to show that we can be a welcoming country and for sure that we are normal people."

Commentators in the country say Russian police in general adopt a far tougher - and for many, more effective - approach to stifling violence than their French counterparts.

At domestic games, officers are deployed heavily and they form human tunnels to keep opposing sides apart and make short shrift of anyone who gets out of line.

"Rowdy foreigners will think twice before coming to a country where they could end up in Siberia," leading paper Sovetsky Sport wrote.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Red flags raised over rogue Russians'. Print Edition | Subscribe