MOSCOW (AFP) – Andrei and his fellow Russian football hooligans flew to France for the Euro 2016 tournament with only one goal in mind: to give England’s supporters a good kicking before the World Cup.
“It was like winning against Brazil in football,” Andrei said of the orchestrated violence.
“It was our last chance to show ourselves before the World Cup because we knew Putin would crack down hard to make sure nothing like that happens in Russia,” he added, speaking on condition that his last name is withheld for his personal safety.
The headline-grabbing brawls in the southern French city of Marseille in June 2016 were bloody.
The clashes on the streets of the touristy old port neighbourhood left 35 people – mainly England fans – injured, a handful of them seriously.
There were more ugly scenes when nearly 200 Russians rushed the English supporters’ section during their teams’ 1-1 draw at the Stade Velodrome.
It was the worst violence to hit international football since the 1998 World Cup, also held in France.
The Russians’ hatred for the English stemmed in part from their bitter 2010 battle for the right to host next year’s edition of the global competition – England’s high hopes were crushed by Russia.
The World Cup draw will be held in the State Kremlin Palace on Friday and once the groups fall into place, there is nothing preventing the two nations from facing each other again on the pitch.
But the fighting was also driven by the Russians’ desire to take the crown of the world’s toughest thugs away from the English, traditionally seen as the original football hooligans.
“Those guys were kings in the 1990s before the police took action,” Andrei said.
“In Marseille, the English behaved very provocatively, but they had become soft by that point. All the Russians came down to Marseille specifically to show the English who we were.”
Russian hooliganism has its national character and even its own name: “Near-football.”
The rivalries are most intense between Moscow and the poorer provinces as well as teams within the Russian capital who are either associated with various branches of the armed forces, or not.
They also seem to have few national boundaries.
At least one Spartak Moscow hooligan was detained in Bulgaria on Sunday after sparking what the Russian underworld said was a pre-arranged fight that spilled over onto the pitch during a match involving Sofia’s army-backed CSKA squad.
Yet the past few years have seen the problem all but vanish from public view in Russia itself as the World Cup approaches.
Violence inside stadiums is now almost unheard of and any fights that do occur are staged in distant fields and forests.
Those who follow near-football closely say Russian hooligans knew Marseille would be their last hurrah before the screws were tightened on them even further.
“The fight against near-football hooliganism began in earnest about 5-10 years ago, when it was at its peak,” said veteran Russian sport reporter Andrei Malasolov.
Malasolov’s Fanzone TV programme about fans and football has been chronicling Russia’s battle against organised football fights since President Vladimir Putin first took power nearly 18 years ago.
“In recent years, this work has intensified, and of course it is directly linked to the World Cup.” The Russian government’s official plan is to force both foreign and domestic supporters to undergo background checks before receiving a special Fan ID card required to purchase match tickets.
A government source in Moscow said Russian law enforcement agents were working with their counterparts from England and other countries to determine which fans were safe.
The source added that the final decision about who gets to attend World Cup matches will be taken by the Russian security services.
But Russia’s real battle against near-football groups began with raids on wrestling and martial arts clubs where many of the Marseille participants trained.
Andrei said the authorities had succeeded in identifying and taking measures against hooligan leaders of every major Russian club.
“Today, at least 10 top people from each of the big ‘near-football’ groups is under house arrest,” he said.
“Guys try to leave town during matches to avoid getting into trouble.”
He also stressed that Russian hooligans were just young men “who like to fight” to prove their manhood and were apolitical by nature.
“Imagine people being sent to the army, where boys become men,” said Andrei. “Football hooliganism is the same thing.”