As they proved in the Stade Velodrome and in the streets of Marseilles during last summer’s European Championship, Russian hooligans are the most organised and ruthless in the world. If they were so effective in the south of France, how much more dangerous will they be in the streets of their own cities?
The man charged with ensuring public order in the Russian capital during the tournament argued that he will be able to control any outbreak of violence. “It is definitely safe for British fans to come here,” said Andrei Zakharov, the city’s deputy chief of police.
“When those fans (from Liverpool and Manchester United) arrived in Moscow for their Champions League matches, we deployed police to meet them and implemented measures according to the information we had. Everything will be secure, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
The World Cup stadia are likely to be entirely safe. When Liverpool and Manchester United played Spartak and CSKA Moscow on consecutive days last month, the Otkrytiye and the VEB arenas were surrounded by armed police. The only recorded trouble was racial abuse aimed at a member of the Liverpool under-19 side that played Spartak Moscow. Penalties for causing trouble in and around a stadium start at a 15,000 rouble fine (£195).
Inside the stadia, there has been a systematic crackdown against Russian hooligan ‘firms’ – they use the English term ‘firm’ out of respect to the men they regard as the hooliganism’s ‘founding fathers’.
A couple of months after the violence in Marseilles, Aleksandr Shprygin, the head of the All-Russia Supporters Union, who was alleged to have led the attacks on English fans, was detained by police and his car set on fire.
That was said to be a warning to Shprygin, who has been linked to Russia’s neo-Nazi movement, to keep his head down. There was no trouble during the Confederations Cup in the summer. There have been clashes this season but they have tended to be pre-arranged meetings in the forests around Moscow.
A flash point could come, if Russia, as expected, do badly in their own World Cup. When Russia were eliminated in the group stages of the 2002 tournament, it sparked a riot in Moscow that left one person dead and 75 injured.
“Am I apprehensive? What do you mean by apprehension?” said Zakharov. “We are ready for whatever may happen but English fans are just like Russian fans, they are welcome to come here. Personally, I am certain everything will be fine.”
The FA has considerable confidence in the effectiveness of Russian police spotters, trained to identify firm members who come near a stadium.
“During the Confederations Cup we tested a new system called Fan ID,” said Zakharov. “It allowed to identify people at the match and we will be using it during the World Cup.”
The biggest problem facing English fans may not be pre-meditated violence but alcohol. Russia has the fourth-highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world – the three above it are all former members of the Soviet Union – and considered beer a soft drink until six years ago. However, relatively few Russian bars have outside areas to drink in and drinking in the street is technically illegal, with an on-the-spot fine of 1,500 roubles (£19.50).
“According to Russian law, it is okay to drink as long as you don’t disturb public order,” said Zakharov, although there is a very low threshold for ‘disturbing public order’. He added: “If there are any violations of public order, the police will have to respond.
“In central Moscow, where most fans will be, we have a special division of the Moscow police department called the tourism police. Our officers who work for this division speak foreign languages so they will be able to explain to fans what the rules for proper behaviour are.”
Zakharov was cagey when asked if the response to drink-related offences would be instant deportation, a tactic the Italian authorities attempted to use against England fans in the 1990 World Cup. “It depends on the specific violation,” he said.
“There are different degrees of violation so we would go on a case-by-case basis. It’s not like we are going to put someone on a plane for drinking a little bit too much. In any case, whatever they do and however we respond, we will always be polite and very respectful when handling them.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies