The decision to award the World Cup tournament to Russia in 2018 was greeted by a sense of disbelief in many quarters, with football’s governing body, FIFA, subsequently accused of corruption, and its former president, Sepp Blatter, among those forced to relinquish their positions within the organisation.
In 2016, with just two years to go before the competition, the prospect of enjoying what should be a celebration of world football was further soured by the actions of hooligans during UEFA Euro 2016 in France.
While violent clashes between rival fans from a range of countries are nothing new, Euro 2016 was where the Russian Ultras came to prominence in the public sphere. 150 hooligans targeted England supporters in Marseilles: the ensuing violence left 35 people injured, and resulted in the arrest of 20 fans from both Russia and England.
The events spurred a flurry of lurid headlines appearing in the British media about the dangers awaiting England supporters during World Cup 2018.
These included: ’Firm of Firms' English football hooligans promise revenge in Russia at World Cup 2018 (The Star, 2016); and Russia's Ultra yobs infiltrated amid warnings England fans could be KILLED at World Cup (The Mirror, March 2017).
Further well documented incidents involving Russian Ultras included a violent clash between fans in Spain in February 2018, when a policeman was killed.
In the hope of dispelling concerns surrounding the safety of football fans, FIFA issued a statement claiming they were confident that the Russian security authorities would be able to deal effectively with any conflicts that might arise.
Nevertheless, as the start of the tournament approaches, the tabloids have continued to warn of the perils facing England fans travelling to Russia.
The March 2018 Salisbury poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which the British government has blamed on the Kremlin, was followed by some particularly hysterical – and, it must be said, biased - headlines being splashed on the front pages of the tabloids:
ULTRA SCARY: Russian ultras plot to set England fans ‘ON FIRE’ during 2018 World Cup revealed – as sick thugs say plans are already underway to attack Three Lions faithful amid spy nerve agent row (The Sun, March 2018); 2018 BLOODBATH: Russian hooligans warn England fans ‘Prepare to DIE’ (The Express, April 2018); World Cup 2018: Russian thugs prepare to unleash HELL (Sunday Express, April 2018); Russian Ultras’ World Cup uniform: Chilling t-shirts go on sale promising bloodshed (The Express, April 2018).
As matters stand, we can of course only speculate on what may or may not happen when the fans from England and Russia meet in June.
England fans are at particular risk for several reasons, not least because they were known to be among the most violent in Europe during the 1970s, 80s and 90s; it can be argued that their actions – such as singing songs about World War 2 in Germany – invited retaliation. Russian Ultras, driven by the nationalist ideologies heavily promoted by President Putin, seem to be doing all they can to emulate England fans, who have been viewed as the previous ‘leaders’ in football violence. Russia’s hooligans now want to ensure that they too are ‘respected’ and feared, and England fans already offered a natural target for them.
It is also worth noting that England’s World Cup matches are being held in some of the more ‘sensitive’ Russian cities. For example, the match against Belgium on 28 June is taking place in Kaliningrad: this is a region that was formerly part of Germany and was awarded to Russia after the end of WW2. With the compulsory expulsion of the German population after the war, the majority of people resident in this exclave, which is bordered by the Baltic countries and Poland, are now of Russian ethnicity. A major military base during the Soviet years, it serves as the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet, and also includes various air bases. Kaliningrad’s geopolitical importance may well have contributed to the description of it by Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, as “a hotbed of Russian nationalism”.
The Salisbury poisoning and the ensuring diplomatic disputes and worsening of relations between the UK and Russia have likely only exacerbated the determination of hooligans on both sides to provoke violent clashes.
Football fans from both England and Russia intent on involving themselves in violence will rely on social media to gather resources and physical support.
The Russian Ultras use Twitter and VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook; however, both accounts are currently quiet, simply reporting on news of football matches in Russia. Similarly, there is, not surprisingly, little information available on the Facebook or Twitter accounts used by English ‘firms’. While we will of course continue to monitor all social media, hooligans planning violent attacks on opposing supporters are more likely to rely on one of the encrypted chat apps to pass on messages.
Interestingly, this could be somewhat less easy for them to do now: Telegram has recently been banned in Russia after the company refused to provide the government with encryption keys for their app. The demand from Roskomnadzor, the agency responsible for telecommunications in Russia, would have given security authorities access to private conversations, and was issued as part of anti-terrorist laws, and to allow the FSB the powers to investigate and prevent terrorist attacks more efficiently.
Some critics noted that Telegram’s use of end-to-end encryption means that new encryption keys are generated each time the app is used, so handing them over to the government would serve no purpose anyway. Telegram has also claimed the company does not even have access to the keys.
Meanwhile, to ensure they can continue using the app, some users are turning to VPNs; Roskomnadzor banned the use of these in 2017, but they are still widely available in Russia.
While other encrypted messaging apps such as Signal and WhatsApp are also still functioning in the country, the Kremlin’s ban on Telegram led to more than 7,000 protesters taking to the streets in Moscow on 30 April to demonstrate against the decision.
One final issue worth considering is the football itself: Russia does not do well in international competitions, and President Putin is highly unlikely to be able to bask in the glory of the World Cup being won by his country’s team. England, too, has failed to live up to the expectations of fans for many years. While the Express claimed in April 2018 that England’s players could be nobbled - Russia could target England players with poison or honeytrap plots at the World Cup - it seems much more likely that hooligans from both countries will view the lack of their team’s success as an excuse to launch a violent attack on rival supporters.