With Russia playing Slovakia in the northern French city of Lille on Wednesday (June 15), and England and Wales playing in neighbouring Lens on Thursday, locals were worried that further hooligan violence could crash the Euro 2016 party. French authorities have stepped up security and restricted the sale of alcohol ahead of the matches to help ensure people keep a cool head.
And on Tuesday, UEFA slapped Russia with a fine and a suspended disqualification – saying it would be thrown out of the tournament if its fans caused more troubles like those that marred the Russia-England game on Saturday night.
The warning has upset many in Russia – starting with the national team’s coach Leonid Slutsky, who said it was unfair to only blame the Russians. He pointed out that the English were not squeaky clean either.
Ahead of Wednesday’s match, daily newspaper Kommersant voiced concern that Russian fans could “be provoked” and drawn into clashes for which they would be “presumed guilty”.
As early as Saturday, Russian striker Artem Dzyuba said: “I don’t really understand the reaction of the British media, who have this impression England supporters are like angels who just behave themselves.”
And when British ex-footballer and BBC sports commentator Gary Lineker tweeted that he hoped UEFA’s warning to Russia would be “enough to stop these animals,” he drew a torrent of angry reactions.
To be fair, Lineker had also previously tweeted that the rowdy, bare-chested, beer-bellied English fans seen causing chaos in Marseille were an “absolute embarassment” to Britain.
Still, his “animals” analogy did not go down well in Russia. Several sports media there hit back with stories showing how drunk English fans in Lille chanted insults and stomped on the Russian flag, while French police looked on.
“Who are the animals here, Gary?” read the headline of one of the stories .
Other media published testimonies from supporters shining a different light on what happened last weekend in Marseille and describing how French police failed to contain the violence.
What do Russian politicians say?
Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said a fraction of violent fans had brought shame on the country.
But Igor Lebedev, a Russian Football Union (RFU) official and MP from the populist Liberal Democratic party, tweeted that there was “nothing wrong with fans fighting”. He told them to “keep up the good work”.
Meanwhil Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, ridiculed French authorities for not being able to handle what he called “normal” behaviour from football fans. He scoffed at their suggestions that some Russians involved in the clashes were ultra-violent hooligans who had come to the Euro specifically to fight.
“They are surprised when they see a real man looking like a man should. They’re only used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades,” Markin wrote on Twitter.
Not everyone defended that line. On the Echo of Moscow website, an op-ed by Communist MP Valery Rashkin read: “Only a sick society can be proud of the nutters among football supporters”. Rashkin went on saying those responsible for the violence should be brought to justice in Russia once they get back from France.
The hooligans question now appears to be turning into a diplomatic spat. Speaking in parliament, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at a French police operation that stopped a bus carrying Russian fans near Cannes on Tuesday and saw some of them deported back to Russia. Lavrov called the incident “absolutely unacceptable”.