IS THE 2018 WORLD CUP GOING TO BE SAFE?

By all accounts, Euro 2016 has been a wild success so far. We’ve seen stunning goals from the likes of Marek Hamsik, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. We’ve had a level of entertainment that belies the supposed drop in quality that was to come from an expanded 24-team tournament. And many of the games that have been less enjoyable have been decided by thrilling buzzer-beaters—England’s win over Wales and Italy’s last-gasp win over Sweden are notable examples. At the time of writing, eight goals have come after the 90th minute!

It’s all going very well and, with the Copa America in consideration too, we’ve had a dizzying amount of brilliant international soccer to watch lately.

However, one aspect of the Euros has been extremely problematic: a small minority of fans who have come to France for some old-fashioned male ritualistic violence. Hooligans.

Hooligan culture was prominent in the 1970s and 1980s in England and pockets of Europe, where working class men fought against their own disenfranchisement in the name of far-left or far-right politics, jingoism or a moronic desire to physically harm people who have arbitrarily chosen to follow a different team. Essentially, it’s more Fight Club than Fever Pitch. If you’ve seen the movie Green Street, you will get an idea of the strange mentality behind this subculture.

Hooligans are not really soccer fans. They often don’t actually attend the games of the sides they follow and they will never wear “colors” (the replica jerseys of their team). It’s part of their code that they will never intentionally attack fans wearing colors—they simply want to fight like-minded reprobates.

As a football fan growing up in England, I never had any interest in hooliganism, but I have certainly seen it. Groups of young men with scarves tied round their face walking with intent around the streets surrounding a stadium. Meet-ups being organized by text message in pubs. I once went to Millwall as an away fan and experienced a small minority of the home “supporters” who did not actually look at the field during the game. They simply shouted torrid abuse at the away fans, plumping their chests as they try to make eye contact and make threats of violence.

At that game, I can vividly remember one fan looking me in the eyes and doing a cutthroat gesture with his finger, while holding a young child with his other hand. I was 15 years old and had simply dared to look in his direction.

The Hoolies hit the headlines as the action commenced in France as fights between England fans, Marseille Ultras and Russian hooligans blighted the streets of Marseille for three days. At first, the blame was laid squarely on the English—after all, it seems like no coincidence that trouble follows their supporters around. However, thanks to eye-witness accounts and first-hand evidence from social media, we have learned that much of the trouble was caused by Russians who “targeted” the English.

We have also heard that many Russian ultras came to the host nation to engage in pre-organized fights with Marseille’s firms. Some came wearing gum shields and martial arts gloves. At the time of writing, dozens of Russians have been detained and 20 are being lined up for deportation.

The matter spilled into UEFA’s jurisdiction after England’s 1-1 draw with Russia, during which the Russian supporters charged through the (entirely insufficient) security at the Stade Velodrome at the full-time whistle. They attempted to attack England fans in the stadium while collecting St George’s flags as trophies of their conquests.

What heroes they are.

As a result, both teams were threatened with expulsion from the tournament, while Russia earned a fine and a “suspended disqualification.” That’s UEFA’s way of saying “any more trouble on our turf and you’re out.”

On Wednesday and Thursday, Russia and England were in action in Lille and nearby Lens, with trouble expected once again. Trains from England actually stopped in Lille on their way to Lens. The trouble was not as bad as feared, but gonzo journalist extraordinaire Stan Collymore was one of many who documented the bad behavior:

Russian fans are by no means the only ones to blame for the trouble—it takes two to Tango—but it is clear that there is a serious issue with supporter behavior. One that might have terrifying repercussions for the 2018 World Cup, which will, of course, be hosted by Russia.

We face the prospect of a World Cup in a nation containing dangerous ultras who are actively encouraged by their government, racism that is ignored and homophobia that is legally upheld. And you thought the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was controversial.

One of the biggest issues appears to be the Russian government’s acquiescence with their fans’ actions. Igor Lebedev, an executive committee member on the Russian Football Union, decided to publicly applaud the fighting:

Furthermore, far-right politician Alexander Shprygin is part of Russia’s official traveling delegation at the tournament. He was once pictured doing a Nazi salute and said that he only wanted to “see only Slavic faces in the Russian national team.”

Yeah.

Reuters claim that the brawling fans see themselves “as Kremlin foot soldiers,” making their mark on the west through brute force. This forceful action and defiance of Europe is seen by some as a mirror of the foreign policy that saw the country invade Crimea two years ago.

In essence, not only do we have a clear problem with Russian violence and far-right leanings, but one that is quite literally being endorsed by the state.

Is this the kind of place you think deserves to host the biggest sporting tournament on Earth?

It’s not even as if hooliganism is the only issue in the former Soviet Union. Racism is prominent in Russian domestic games, with a BBC reporter noting a prevalence of monkey noises at a game last year. A few months later, former national captain Alexei Smartin said racism “does not exist” in his country.

There also exists a culture of homophobia, with anti-gay legislation running completely against FIFA’s anti-discrimination policies.

(And, aside from the fan experience, we cannot forget that Russian athletes are currently banned from the 2016 Olympics following a high-profile doping scandal.)

So, we face the prospect of a World Cup in a nation containing dangerous ultras who are actively encouraged by their government, racism that is ignored and homophobia that is legally upheld.

And you thought the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was controversial.

Understandably, there have been some calls to strip Russia of their highly lucrative showpiece event. Nearly 25,000 have signed a petition requesting that they should not host, based solely on their fans’ behavior at the Euros.

BBC commentator Alan Green, who has covered 16 European Championships and World Cups in his 30-year career, has revealed he will boycott over safety concerns. Speaking about his experience working the 2008 Champions League Final in Moscow, Green said: “The whole atmosphere around that game was horrendous and I thought, ‘I do not wish to return here’.”

Since safety should always be the number one priority, there have also been calls for national teams to boycott the next World Cup. Given the financial incentives and prestige involved in competing, it seems highly unlikely that any teams would choose to stay home for non-football reasons, even if this would be the very best way to enact change.

Will the 2018 World Cup be a safe place for fans from all over the world of all creeds and colors? It is still two years away and there is time for policy changes to be made, but based on current evidence, the cultural shift simply will not be made. When the folks in charge are happy to either overlook or champion poor behavior, there is little hope for change. At the risk of scaremongering, heading to Russia for the festival of football in two summers’ time appears to be a risky proposition.

So, this is ultimately Sepp Blatter’s legacy. A World Cup being staged in a potentially violent nation with stone-age cultural views and political ideologies completely out of step with the west. It will be followed by one in a desert with immeasurable human cost through slave labor.

Thanks, Sepp.

On The Ball is Ryan Bailey’s weekly column on KICK. See the archive here.