Glass bottles shattered on the streets. Fans were bloodied. Police screamed instructions, doing their best to gain control of a situation that was already uncontrollable. In June 2016, the streets of Marseilles became a war zone as a group of reported Russian Ultras fought with England supporters during Euro 2016. Both sides blamed the other, but the aftermath was undeniable: Fans were deported, and victims were hospitalized. In the wake of the violence people couldn’t help but ask: “What is going to happen at the World Cup?”
Now Russia, and the world prepare themselves for an event on soccer’s brightest stage — and it’s on the Ultras’ home turf.
What is a “hooligan?” What is an “Ultra?”
Hooliganism is broadly defined as any violent or destructive behavior conducted by individuals on behalf of defending their favorite team and its honor. The term dates back to the late-1800s in England, but it took some time to see the rise to modern hooliganism as it applies to sports.
A widespread rise in violence perpetrated by fans in the 1960s and ’70s gave birth to anti-hooligan measures that were adopted by police to try to curtail violent acts. Many of these, such as banning items that could be used as missiles, are still in effect in England today.
The term “Ultra” takes hooliganism subculture to another level. Russia is not the only country to have “Ultras.” It’s a modern term to define the most fervent supporters of a team. Ultras go above and beyond repping team colors and supporting on match day. Many live their lives through the lens of the team — which can lead to extreme violence when they meet other fans.
Dr Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University, spoke to the BBC in 2016 about the Ultra lifestyle.
“There are groups that do adopt more right-wing, more confrontational styles of football fandom, who do affiliate with this terminology Ultra. This is particularly true when you move into the eastern European context. Places like Ukraine and Russia.”
So while the term itself is more universal, being an “Ultra” is very different in the context of eastern Europe — and why supporters of Russia’s national team possibly being aligned with the Ultra movement are such a concern to other nations.
A culture of domestic soccer violence.
The possible unification of the Ultras is an extension of already violent fans coming together to find a common enemy. Russia has an established culture of soccer violence at the club level, and have had many reported incidents of racism that were linked to these Ultra groups, and it’s the side of the sport the Russian government is desperately trying to keep away from international eyes when the World Cup kicks off.
Russia is leaning on its police force to be ready to break up violence, and the Ultras are most likely aware there will be zero tolerance. However, expecting Russia’s hooligans to be wary of acting up in a time of heightened security is expecting predictability from a notoriously unpredictable group.
In recent years it’s become increasingly difficult for fans to brawl in the streets, which has led to makeshift fight clubs being formed in the woods and agreed to by opposing fans. An ESPN story in the lead up to the World Cup explained how this violence is kept away from prying eyes in fights where almost anything goes.
“These fights almost always take place in the woods, away from the eyes of the police (or anyone else, really). These fights have no written rules or regulations, have no certified referees or officials, and while it is generally considered gauche to murder someone at one of these fights, everything short of that is pretty much fine.”
There’s a depth of learned violence which can be systemic inside Russian soccer culture. Children can be exposed to fighting for their team at a young age, perhaps after being attacked for wearing their team’s colors. This can indoctrinate fans into accepting that violence is a part of the sport, tying personal pride to their team’s and fighting for their honor. Vova, the subject of ESPN’s dive into the Russian Ultra movement, explained this link.
“To Vova, this is glorious. To Vova, this is magical. To Vova, the idea of not punching people makes no sense, even though he knows that the Russian authorities are desperate for the upcoming World Cup to be safe and peaceful.”
This clash of cultures is what Russian soccer officials fear.
What is Russia doing to stop hooliganism?
Police are the first line of defense in Russia’s war against its own hooligans. The country is highly aware that violence will have extreme repercussions, especially on Russia’s ability to host future international events.
This winter Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech to police officers in preparation for the World Cup. “[You] must hold [Russia’s image] at the highest level, and most importantly, ensure maximum security for players and fans”, Putin said. “You play a crucial role in achieving this aim.” The president added that, “the way this event goes and our country’s image will directly depend on your smooth, skillful work.”
Policing might be the government-mandated way to stop violence, but there’s evidence that the problem is growing inside Russian soccer, despite these efforts. A report published in May by SOVA, an independent Russian think-tank focusing on discrimination and racism, observed a rise in violent and non-violent discriminatory acts, as well as a proliferation of far-right support inside the sport.
In the year running from June 2017 through May 2018, SOVA recorded 160 actions and examples of discrimination, which included 51 uses of far-right and neo-Nazi symbols and slogans, as well as 19 examples of discriminatory chanting.
It’s SOVA’s belief that Russian football officials have made recent attempts to curb violence and discrimination, but became interested in fixing the issue when it was already too late.
“In our view the Russian authorities began to show serious commitment to resolving the issue too late. Time that could have been spent on building a new model of relationships with fans and changing the culture has been missed.”
This effectively means that when fans arrive in Russia for the World Cup it will be business as usual for the Russian Ultras, and police will need to hold the line.
Has anything happened yet?
A deep history of Russia fans using racist slurs towards black players has caused some to make adjustments in preparation for the World Cup. English defender Danny Rose has instructed his family not to travel to the country to see him play, after an incident in Serbia last week in which he was pelted with rocks and subjected to monkey chants by Russian Ultras.
There have also been two reported violent acts on fans, though it’s unclear if either incident had anything to do with the Russian Ultras.
Russian officials have actively been warning known Ultras about the consequences of being violent during the World Cup, but it remains to be seen whether it will have any real effect. The World Cup is here, and the Russian Ultras will most likely be out in force.