Russia vs Slovakia: Yet another flare burns brightly, but Russian fans fade like their insipid, anaemic team

The scourge of the tournament, one more indiscretion away from disqualification, suggest that their Euro 2016 might soon be history anyway

Ian Herbert
Lille Metropole
Wednesday 15 June 2016 15:56 BST
Russia fans light a flare in the Lille Metropole stands after Denis Glushikov's goal
Russia fans light a flare in the Lille Metropole stands after Denis Glushikov's goal (Getty)

The apparent incapability of organisers to police this event revealed itself about 80 minutes into the match when another of the Russian flares which had been blasted towards England's players in Marseilles was lit. It flickered red, issued acrid smoke, and went out again. The Russians simultaneously began to sing for the first time because their insipid, anaemic team had actually managed to score.

But at the end the Russians sat slumped on their seats, wondering how their journey into France had been reduced to this. The scourge of the tournament, one more indiscretion away from disqualification, and now a performance like this, which suggests their Euro 2016 might soon be history anyway. The supporters’ afternoon went out like that of the players they had just watched: with a whimper.

The striker Artem Dzyuba asked them to behave and there was no chasing the opposition’s support out the ground, as they had England’s in Marseille, which was a mercy. But what we actually saw from them was something far more benign than any team would have wanted. Russia did not fill their allocation of seats for this occasion – a substantial number were unoccupied – and struggled to muster a fraction of the enthusiasm displayed by the Slovakians, for whom this event was no less than a festival.

The respective populations do not bear any comparison, of course – a mere 4.3 million to 143 million – and yet it was the diminutive nation who looked like this event meant something. Some of them came in camper vans from Bratislava – a full 12-hour, 800-mile trek – and they made all the noise. It’s never encouraging when a Mexican wave strikes out after 10 minutes but Slovakia’s readiness so early into an afternoon when defeat would have sent them home revealed a nation not inclined to take themselves too seriously.

The wave didn’t entirely die out when it reached the Russian end but it was a half-hearted effort. The Slovakians bounced, sang, thumped their bass drum. One of the Russians had brought a trumpet but he working against a sense of stunned indifference.

To scan the Russian end was to see the essential difference between this gathering of compatriots and that in Marseille, when a sea of England fans dominated the ground. No one looked intent on misconduct before the flare popped up. It looked like a football crowd.

The manner of the Slovakian euphoria helped, it should be said. The little nation managed, as so many do, to enthuse respectfully. There were no boos to accompany the Russian national anthem, which had clearly upset the Russian coach and players as well as supporters, in Marseilles. The anthem was respected in its entirety. There was no taunting when Russian fans found their voice. The whistles for Russians came only when Leonid Slutski’s side seized possession.

Video of Russian hooligans

It did not require letters from the Football Association and pleas from their players – performing diplomatic gymnastics to avoid offence – to ask this young nation’s effervescent group to show that respect. Theirs is a strong sense of nationhood and the country only ceded from Czechoslovakia in 1993. Yet there is no wish to rub the spirit of independence in the old Communist masters’ faces.

It helped their very good mood that that Marek Hamsik was in their number. The Napoli player provided England, their next opponents, with some very serious cause for thought in the way he turned the game Slovakia’s way and had effectively finished it by half time. His exquisite, 40-yard pass to set up the opening goal for Vladimir Weiss, who cut inside two defenders to finish, was delivered instinctively: barely a glance from the Napoli player to see the channel into which his countryman was running. Hamsik’s finish when he doubled the lead – sending the ball in off the upright just before half time – was of the same class.

As all of this unfolded, the other kind of self-expression which Group B has brought to these championships, continued on the streets of Lille a few miles away. England fans emerged with their banners and anthems. It remained to be seen whether they will bait them with this result, as Wednesday evening wears on. Though a victory over Wales in their final group could yet rescue Russia, but the sooner they can be rescued from this penury and go home, the better.

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