World Cup 2018: I bumped into a Russian hooligan at 3am in Moscow - and this is what I learned

No alcohol, weekly training sessions, and an unwavering dedication to fighting football fans: the life of a Russian hooligan, as told to an unsuspecting English fan in Moscow 

Sam Farley
Friday 22 June 2018 12:34
2018 Russia World Cup in numbers

It was daylight at 3am, with the sun having only briefly set as it seems to do during a Russian summer. Meandering back from a night along the bustling Nikolskaya Street, still alive and pulsating to the sound of Moroccan drums and clad in colours from across the globe, a lean, wiry figure approaches. Ordinarily it would be his sunglasses that would draw the eye at this time in the morning but, instead, it was his t-shirt, black, with the words ‘Russian Hooligans’ across the chest.

Needless to say curiosity got the better of me and I asked about his t-shirt, imagining that it was probably a misjudged t-shirt and not believing that anybody would actively publicise their involvement with hooliganism. However, 21-year-old Vitali (not his real name) wasn’t being ironic; he was just incredibly proud of his involvement with Spartak Moscow, who in his words are the “most dangerous fight club in the world”, and over the next hour talked to me about his views on England fans, Russia and his “sport”.

With his somewhat skinny frame I was initially suspect as to the legitimacy of his claims but those doubts faded after he removed his shirt to show me the shoulder injury he had recently sustained in a fight, and the large scar running from his crown to where his hair had begun to recede.

What makes a young man, as eloquent as one can be in a foreign tongue, get into the business of kicking seven bells out of people at football? For Vitali it was a sense of duty, of being part of his identity as a Russian male. Throughout the time we spoke he frequently mentioned the importance of fighting and hooliganism as “traditional” and “historical” – not the usual qualities we associate with it in the UK. Hooliganism is seen, by him at least, as a badge of pride, and a demonstrator of his masculinity and love for his country.

As a member of Spartak’s youth “fighting team”, Vitali said that he spends his Saturday’s scrapping. His dedication to his “team” being so much that he spends his free time training and rarely touches alcohol. Fighting on a Saturday seems as ingrained in his life as playing in an 11-a-side league or going to the pub would be for a British person of a similar age.

Close encounters with the thuggish kind: Me and Vitali pose for a photo

Pride in his nation is something that seemed key to him, from the way he spoke down to the tattoo on his forearm of a famous Russian poet, whom he described as a “true patriot”. He spoke with a smile on his face about Russia’s status as being the World’s best hooligans, a smile that only grew wider when he spoke of his enemies.

That list of enemies, as you might not be surprised to learn, features England at its core, alongside Poland. He was quick to stress that his dislike of the English, and indeed the Poles, whom the Russian people have had a long and complicated relationship with, was purely down to hooliganism and not politics. His main issue with England, and in particular their fans, was that they fight with “bottles and chairs” and not, as he described, in the “classic style” with hands and feet.

He had been in Marseille and was very angry with how the English fans fought. I briefly questioned whether this was perhaps because English fans in Marseille had been minding their own business and not looking for a fight, and reacted with whatever was close at hand when they were attacked. It was here when Vitali began to struggle with what was being said, perhaps with his understanding of English beginning to wane, or perhaps a disapproval of what had been said.

Vitali's parting gift: a sticker from his 'fighting squad'

I asked if England’s fans, and indeed those from elsewhere, would be safe at the World Cup, the answer to which was thankfully a resounding yes. He stated that besides England and Poland, the Russians welcomed the world and that the police presence was so strong that no English or Poles would be targeted anyway. The police have apparently clamped down very hard on known offenders and it would be impossible to fight. He also seemed to imply that if there was no appetite for it at the World Cup then his “fighting side” would be free to renew domestic fighting once the tournament had completed.

Vitali then takes out his phone, cracked and battered, and shows me a collection of photos of his “fighting team”: 10-15 shirtless men, lined up as if they were a football team ahead of kick-off at the Luzhniki Stadium. Also on his phone are a collection of videos, one of which he has particular pride in as he points himself out in the clip. Against a forest backdrop he strikes down an opponent from rival team CSKA, before beginning to kick him on the floor. Wincing in the process, I ask him how, if this is a sport, do you win? He explains through both language and physical demonstration, that the fighting only stops when everybody on the opposing side is in the foetal position on the floor. He also says that it’s acceptable to attack people on the floor, as long as others are still stood, when I probe him on what happens to those who submit early.

After regaling us with more stories, it’s clear that Vitali views fighting not as a criminal act, but very much as a sport, and something that is in his DNA, part of the fabric of being a Russian male. He wishes me well, and hands over a parting gift, a sticker from his “fighting squad” and I thank him for his time. Not before he offers a chilling warning: that there will be fighting at the European Championships in 2020, due to be staged across Europe. With that he walks off into the Moscow morning.

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