Six days into Euro 2016 in France, the image that comes to mind isn’t of a beautiful pass from Paul Pogba or a wonderful goal from Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s of the old port town of Marseille and the northern border city of Lille being turned into stages for rioting and violence by contingents of Russian and English fans.
Before the opening-round match between the two national teams on Saturday, supporters of Russia and England rioted in the streets of Marseille, clashing with French police, who used tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to break them up. Inside the stadium, as the match ended, Russian fans turned on their English counterparts.
In the aftermath of the chaos, UEFA threatened both nations with disqualification from the tournament.
“Such unacceptable behaviour by so-called supporters of the national teams of England and Russia has no place in football, a sport we must protect and defend,” the UEFA executive committee wrote in a statement.
England manager Roy Hodgson and captain Wayne Rooney recorded a video entreating fans to behave; the Russian team retweeted a message condemning the behavior of supporters in Marseille. Many hoped that the prospect of being sent home early from the monthlong, 24-nation tournament would bring some calm to the tense atmosphere surrounding Group B.
It did not. On Tuesday, fights between fans once again broke out, this time in Lille — the setting for Russia vs. Slovakia, and the place where English fans had been urged by tournament organizers to stay ahead of a match in neighboring Lens. During their team’s 2–1 loss to Slovakia on Wednesday, Russian fans set off a flare in the stands. After the match, violence again broke out in the streets, with English fans joining in as riot police once more attempted to subdue supporters.
Despite UEFA’s threats, it’s hard to imagine either nation being sent home. In Russia’s case, the warning stipulated that in order to be kicked out of the tournament, fans would have to behave violently inside a stadium. Russia is currently at the bottom of Group B and has one more group match, against Wales. Besides, the acting president of UEFA, Ángel María Villar Llona, also happens to be FIFA’s head for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Is he really going to act against a nation with which he has such close ties?
The chaos surrounding the tournament was avoidable. At every step, European soccer’s governing body has pointed to obvious, wholly foreseeable problems and shrugged. After all, who could have guessed that tensions in Europe — where right-wing, anti-immigrant parties and an ever-worsening refugee crisis have arisen, and where Britain’s “Brexit” vote and the specter of an aggressive, interventionist Russia loom — might be high? Who could have known that planning marquee matches likely to bring massive influxes of fans might be too much to handle for small cities like Lille and Lens? Who would have thought to seek the input of the French Gendarmerie Nationale? Who could have imagined the issues that would arise if Russia could advance far enough to face Ukraine, a country it invaded two years ago? This is UEFA’s tournament. It is responsible for the running of it, it is responsible for the scheduling, and it is responsible for knowing the risks presented by the various countries’ supporters.
There is something special about a sport that stirs such passion in its supporters that they follow the team by the thousands. Organized fans, singing songs, wearing jerseys, waving flags. But what happens when those organized fans turn to organized violence?
In Russia, hardcore fans of opposing teams will sometimes stage what are called “forest fights” to settle scores. Picture dozens of grown-ass men, wearing the colors of CSKA Moscow, Spartak, or Dynamo, beating the ever-loving shit out of each other beneath the foliage. They call themselves “ultras.” They do this for fun.
It was the ultras who came out to France for the Euros, to “represent” Russia. Reports surfaced that their vision of representation might be a violent one: Word spread that some Russians traveled to Marseille not simply to support Russia, but to wreak whatever havoc they could. Russian hooliganism is infamous: As much as other nations, including England, have rowdy, occasionally brutal traditions of soccer fandom, Russian ultras are unique in their commitment to a singular, violent ideology.
And Russian officials appear to have little interest in calming tensions — instead, they have gone out of their way to encourage the violence. A Russian soccer executive said that the rioters in Marseille had “defended the honour of their country”; “well done lads, keep it up!” he wrote on Twitter. Russia’s foreign minister, meanwhile, suggested that the violence was caused by the English.
Most worrying of all is that we probably haven’t seen the last of the Russian hooligans — this month or over the next couple years. Clashes between English and Russian fans in Lille continued late into Wednesday night, and one French journalist reported that Russian ultra were looking to fight fans from Poland and Turkey.
As for beyond: Russia will host the 2018 World Cup. Of course, the Russian government has a certain knack for clamping down on things it doesn’t like, especially while on the international stage: The Sochi Winter Olympics, for example, skirted many of the more dire predictions made before the games in 2014. But given the Kremlin’s response to the violence in France, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they’ll even want to.