Interview with Russian hooligans

MOSCOW — Holding on to the ankles of two of his opponents, Alex, a 33-year-old member of a Moscow soccer hooligan group, felt the blows on his head but wouldn’t let go. The third man on top of him was battering his skull with both fists, but still Alex held on, hoping to buy his teammates, battling around him, breathing space. At last, the man rammed his elbow down into Alex’s face, shattering his eye socket. He let go.

This was not his first fight; years of organized brawls have left Alex with a face reshaped by blows. (Surgery and a plastic implant stabilized his eye after this most recent one.) And that last fight, nearly a year ago, had been a good one, Alex said in a recent interview. His side had won.

What had unnerved him was a new feeling: He realized it was getting harder to keep up.

When it first appeared in the 1990s, hooliganism in Russian soccer modeled itself heavily on the English version, adopting its clothes and terminology, including the term for its groups: firms. The Russians also embraced the English’s passion for blackout drinking and drunken brawling.

“The English were our school,” said Yevgeny Malinkin, a fan in his 40s known as Kril. “Now we’ve lost our fathers. We’ve overtaken them.”

In fact, Russia’s hooligan scene has undergone a transformation. The new generation bears little resemblance to the beery bravado and off-balance punch-ups associated with traditional European hooliganism, or even the sometimes militialike violence of South American ultras.

Instead, the fans who have emerged in Russia over the past decade are obsessed with physical fitness, elite martial arts training and — at least while fighting — militant sobriety. Christened Okolofutbola, or “around football,” Russia’s hooligan scene has developed into perhaps Europe’s toughest, and just over a year before their country hosts soccer’s World Cup, the most hard-core Russian fans may be in the best fighting shape of their lives.

But while their prowess is not in doubt, fan monitors, soccer officials and even the hooligans themselves say there is virtually no chance the disorder that the Russian fans brought to last year’s European Championship in France will be repeated on home soil.

Instead, Russia’s hooligan groups are enduring an unprecedented crackdown by the authorities, who are determined that the World Cup will go smoothly. Interviews with more than a dozen fans and hooligan group members over the past five months have shed light on a wave of arrests and searches that have targeted the most violent fans and their leaders, as the police have turned measures more associated with antiterrorism operations and political repression against the hooligans.

“Believe me,” said Andrei Malosolov, a soccer journalist who helped found Russia’s national supporters club, “the years before the 2018 World Cup will be the quietest in the history of Russian soccer.”

Battle-Ready

In Marseille in June, it quickly became clear the Russians had come to fight.

Thousands of English fans had packed the Old Port of the southern French city ahead of their team’s match against Russia at the European Championship. The English — many of whom had been drinking for three days — had occupied the waterfront’s cafes, from where some occasionally lobbed objects toward French riot police officers standing watch.

The Russians, meanwhile, had landed in Barcelona, Spain. There they boarded buses for France, identifying one another by singing Russian punk songs. Arriving in Marseille, they received text messages with instructions on where to gather. Without even stopping to drop their luggage, most headed straight for the English.

“We literally hadn’t managed to get to the end of the first beer before a clap rang out and our guys shouted, ‘So, what are we doing this?’” Ivan, a wiry fan who traveled with a dozen others to France, recalled in a Moscow bar recently. “We went into that square and started to just really, just to work in all 360 degrees.”

(Ivan, like many of those interviewed who still take part in organized fights, declined to be quoted using his full name, for fear of a visit from the police.)

The Russians hit the English like a cavalry charge. In minutes, the port was a battlefield, with fans clashing under barrages of flying bottles and pinwheeling chairs. About 200 Russian fans, many wearing masks and mixed-martial-arts fighting gloves, loped through the chaos, capturing their actions on GoPro cameras strapped to their bodies.