Watching a football match in Russia often carries echoes of the grim era of hooliganism in 1980s Britain.
There are crumbling stadiums, sparse crowds, clashes between hardcore fans and police, and despite a recent ban, often a pervasive smell of cigarette smoke.
Also, as shown Friday in a report by an anti-discrimination groupers, pervasive racism is directed against players and fans from ethnic minorities.
Of the 12 glittering new and refurbished arenas which will host the 2018 World Cup, many will replace dilapidated Soviet-era bowls which often lack basic facilities such as sufficient toilets, with little effort made to accommodate female fans and families.
That helps to ensure that crowd numbers are among the lowest in major European leagues – attendances of less than 2,000 are not unknown for games at the lower end of the Russian Premier League.
In Russia’s half-empty stadiums, groups of hardcore fans set an often intolerant tone inspired by British and Italian gangs notorious for brawling with police.
Many of Russia’s hardcore fan groups “were initially inspired by the English hooligan scene of the 1980s,” Moscow-based author Marc Bennetts, who has written extensively on Russian football, told The Associated Press in e-mailed comments.
“But over time, the influence of the far more expressive Italian ultras, with their massive banners and spectacular pyrotechnics, became increasingly dominant.”
Some groups have links with racist organizations, revealed in abuse against black players and fans from Russia’s own ethnic minorities. While some fans shout racist abuse for political reasons, many others see it simply as another tactic to distract the opposition’s star players.
Policing at Russian football is in a state of flux ahead of the World Cup, with authorities keen to relax a previously heavy-handed approach in which thousands of police take up positions in the stadium.
Animosity between local police and traveling fans from the visiting team occasionally boils over into running battles in the stands or infringements of fans’ rights, such as in August, when police in the World Cup host city of Kazan forced visiting female fans of Spartak Moscow to strip naked for searches conducted in the presence of male officers.
With the World Cup in mind, the Russian Football Union and its Premier League have backed a scheme to replace police gradually with trained stewards, often drawn from the ranks of the home team’s fans. That has not been without problems – in May, Zenit St. Petersburg’s stewards were widely accused of being insufficiently tough with supporters who went on to invade the pitch, one punching Dynamo Moscow’s Russian defender Vladimir Granat.
On the whole, however, Russian stadium security increasingly resembles that in Western Europe. “It’s more or less quiet. If no one’s behaving like a hooligan, the police quietly stands to one side,” St. Petersburg-based sportswriter Vladimir Kolos told the Associated Press.
Compared to Russia’s turbulent 1990s, Bennetts said, “there is slightly more effort to treat the fan as a paying customer, rather than an animal to be caged.”
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