When Russia was awarded the honour of hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup, beating competition from arguably more infrastructurally-prepared nations, the immediate reaction of many outside the country was to look for problems. They did not have to look far – domination of the domestic game for decades by a single city, a huge financial disparity within the sport, political interference, and the ever-present threat of racism. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the global game.
Nevertheless, there has been plenty of cause for optimism. Since the profile of the Russian Premier League has begun to rise, aided not only by the successful World Cup bid but also a series of high profile transfers to teams such as Zenit and Anzhi, incidents of racism have attracted wider criticism from a larger audience, even if the penalties imposed by the Russian Football Union offer little by way of deterrent. Plans to improve transport arrangements may have been tempered by a number of team bankruptcies and disappearances, but it is progress all the same, and the arrival of a former footballer to the game’s top job after Euro 2012 suggested that politics may be finally taking a back seat to the sport itself.
Of course, there is still some way to go before Russia can be considered ready to host the World Cup. Still, notifying the hosts so far in advance allows for precisely this situation – with just under six years until the opening game, there is plenty of time for the Russian authorities to prepare their country for football’s biggest spectacle. Stadiums will be built, new policies implemented and power spread, and the self-proclaimed greatest show will continue on its merry way to the infinitely more problematic Qatar four years later.
All of this relies, of course, on the co-operation of the Russian people with their leaders – something which, judging by the wave of protests over the winter, the reprisal at Vladimir Putin’s re-ascendance to the Presidency, and the recent response to the imprisonment of feminist punk martyrs Pussy Riot, may not be that easy to guarantee.
To those who are unaware of Russia’s footballing past, the connection between sport and politics may not immediately spring to mind. However, it is worth mentioning that this phenomenon is by no means restricted to Russia and the former Soviet Union – think of Barcelona’s status as a symbol of Catalan nationhood, the power struggles at the top of Brazilian football and the ideological positions of some Italian ultras, and it not difficult to forge a link between the sporting and political spheres.
In Russia, the Soviet past means a legacy of sporting societies, each one possessing a number of fans fiercely loyal to their moniker, its connotations and, in the case of divided cities, its territory. Moscow is the capital of the country and of these divisions – CSKA for the army, Dinamo for the secret police, Lokomotiv for the railways and Spartak as the alleged people’s team to name the main four, and in years gone by the number of Moscow sides at Russia’s top table was higher still.
The national cup competition is one method by which today’s lower lights – in this case, Torpedo Moscow – can meet with their more illustrious rivals. Once a legitimate challenger for Soviet titles and home to the legendary Eduard Streltsov, Torpedo have flirted with financial disaster and now find themselves makeweights in the country’s second tier. Robbed of their own socio-political clout, they find themselves searching for a void to occupy.
So, when the partly regional draw picked them out against neighbours Dinamo, their position was obvious. In an effort to pit them themselves firmly against their opponents, they would take on the role of Spartak, Dinamo’s historic rivals. The result overshadowed what should have been the talking points of the round – Premier League sides Rubin, Alania and Amkar were swept from the competition by First Division clubs Yenisei Krasnoyarsk, FC Tyumen and SKA-Energia Khabarovsk respectively – resulting in riots in and around the ground, flares and pyrotechnics in the stadium, and ultimately the abandonment of the match after 50 minutes, Vladimir Rykov’s double giving Dinamo a 2-1 lead at the time of cancellation.
Given that the match had already been paused due to crowd trouble, and that both captains had pleaded with fans to calm down, it speaks volumes that Denis Boyarintsev’s goal for the home side sparked such a violent response. Unfortunately, whilst the Moscow derby provided the only abandonment of the week in the top competitions, it was far from the only action deemed worthy of repercussion by the Russian Football Union.
Indeed, within the top flight alone there were seven games during which disciplinary action was taken, amounting to a grand total of 1.25 million roubles being procured from club coffers. Ten of the 14 listed offences related to fan behaviour, including fans of Zenit, Krylya Sovetov and CSKA earning their sides 200,000 rouble fines for pyrotechnics. Evidently, best behaviour is an alien concept to many Russian audiences.
However, whilst the responsibility for their actions obviously lies with the fans themselves, there is something to be said for the authorities’ attitude to recent events. When converted into more widely-used currencies, the figure of 1.25m roubles amounts to roughly £25,000, €31,000 or $40,000. That figure, which is the sum total of the ten fan-related fines given to nine clubs, is less than the weekly salary of some of the country’s top players, and a mere trifle to the likes of Gazprom-backed Zenit.
For sides lower down the league system, a fine of that size may well be detrimental to their annual budget – Sibiryak Bratsk of the Second Division’s easternmost zone are on the verge of withdrawal after finding themselves unable to fund their next two away trips – but for top flight teams the penalties are laughable. As a result, offending fans feel no compulsion to stop, as they are not harming their team, and with banning orders rare in Russia, the same vocal minority are free to continue their actions.
To put the fines into perspective, Zenit’s 200,000 rouble (£4,000) fine for crowd trouble was a mere ten times the fine dished out to manager Luciano Spalletti for overstepping his technical area. Given the champions’ high salaries and well-documented financial backers, the incentive for either party to cease and decease is non-existent.
Gazprom cannot be blamed for the behaviour of Zenit’s fans, nor can Spalletti be linked to the behaviour of Torpedo and Dinamo fans in an unrelated cup tie. However, what can be established is that whilst Russian football is making progress in many areas, fan culture appears to be stuck firmly in the past, unable to move into the modern age and away from hooliganism and gang warfare. If nothing is done, Russia could be a dangerous place in 2018.