As fans arrive in Russia ahead of the soccer World Cup that kickoffs tomorrow, much of the attention on the competition has been focused on security amid worries about possible fan trouble and terrorism.
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But fears that soccer hooligan groups who ran amok at the European Championships in 2016 in France might seek to recreate the chaos at home have appeared overblown amid an intense crackdown by Russia’s security services.
Hooligans described to ABC News in recent months how they have received calls and house visits from police and officers from the FSB security service informing them to behave. They said their groups' leaders are under surveillance, with their phones tapped.
Zhenya, a veteran member of a hooligan group that supports CSKA Moscow and who like many others did not want to give his full name for fear of repercussions, told ABC News how armed police had raided his house as a warning.
A wave of arrests last year has also chilled the violent fan scene, while anti-hooligan practices long common in Europe, such as stadium bans have been introduced.
“The movement is effectively paralyzed,” Ivan ‘Il Duche’, a well-known former fan leader, told ABC News./Getty
Under such pressure, over a dozen former and active hooligans told ABC News that they expect no major violence. “It won’t happen,” said Ivan, a hooligan in his mid-30s who took part in the street battles between Russian and British fans in the French port of Marseilles during the European Championships.
Marseilles gave Russian hooligans a reputation for exceptional violence and martial skill. Forsaking the chaotic drunken brawling more usually associated with soccer hooligans, a younger generation of Russian hooligans now trains fanatically for fights and are obsessed with fitness.
In part this is a result of pressure from authorities over the past decade, that has forced the fights away from stadiums and out into the woods, where hooligan groups meet at weekends to battle one another.
In the woods, the hooligans confront one another in two lines—ranging from 10-on-10, up to 80-on-80-- and then fight until one side is incapacitated. There are few rules: no weapons, and stop when commanded. Stamping on heads is frowned upon, but not forbidden.
The fixation on fitness and training has increasingly made the fights more like a sport, with younger fighters often little interested in soccer itself and many militantly sober.
The high level has also produced an arms race, with top groups—known by the British term ‘firms’—often recruiting semi-professional Mixed Martial Arts or Thai boxing fighters. The flow goes both ways and some of Russia’s leading MMA fighters have also fought in the forests.
But recently the reach of the police has moved even into the woods. Hooligans described arriving at fight sites to find the police already waiting for them. Previously fights of 200-on-200 were not uncommon, right now 20-on-20 are infrequent, several fighters said.
Meanwhile, improved surveillance at stadiums, the introduction of ID requirements and more aggressive profiling efforts by police has made Russian match days increasingly resemble the more orderly affairs in Western Europe.
“It looks like it’s headed that way,” a veteran fan in his forties, nicknamed “Grin”, said, sighing.
A bigger worry though is likely to be racist and homophobic displays at the stadiums. Russian soccer games still frequently see racist and anti-gay chants and there has been no notable improvement ahead of the World Cup, with the Russian monitoring group Sova saying it had seen a rise in the number reported last year. Responding to the worries, FIFA for the first time has given referees the authority to call off games over racist or abusive chants.
A day before the Cup’s start though, signs of the event’s lighter side were appearing in Moscow as fans arrived.
The month long tournament begins with Russia playing Saudi Arabia in Moscow. National teams have been arriving for the past two weeks, spreading out to team bases across the 11 cities that are hosting the tournament, from Sochi on the Black Sea to Ekaterinburg on the western edge of Siberia.
Russian authorities have said they expect around one million fans to visit. In Moscow on Wednesday, small groups in brightly-colored national dress had begun to appear.
A massive fan zone, capable of holding 25,000 people, has been constructed in the shadow of the Stalinist skyscraper of Moscow State University, looking out over the city’s main Luzhniki stadium, where the World Cup final will be played. A viewing area has been set up on Red Square by the Kremlin, more widely known abroad for the tank parades that roll across it each year.
Just off the square on Tuesday, a small crowd of pleased and bemused-looking Russians watched as a group of elderly Brazilian fans played drum music and sang. Most of the fans nearby were from South American countries, such as Peru, Columbia and Uruguay. Thousands of Americans are still expected to travel, with over 88,000 tickets sold to U.S. fans, despite their team’s failure to qualify.
More visible than the fans so far in Moscow was the massive security presence being deployed. Thousands of extra police have been called up from all over the country and there are extra patrols in many areas.
The security is most focused on terrorism. Russia is heavily engaged in the Syrian civil war and is still battling a simmering Islamist insurgency in in its own southern regions, and jihadist groups have threatened to target the World Cup. Moscow has not suffered a major attack in recent years, but last year a man detonated a bomb on the subway in St. Petersburg, killing 13.
In recent months, the FSB has said it has thwarted several plots tied to the Islamic State targeting the World Cup
But for fans arriving in Russia, the most trouble they have faced so far is likely to be the eye-watering prices for accommodation some have had to pay. As at previous World Cups, landlords and hotel-owners have been hiking their rates, with modest hotel rooms going for sometimes thousands of dollars a night. Russia’s consumer watchdog in April said it had fined 539 hotels in different host cities for inflating their prices during the World Cup.
The Cup has awoken an entrepreneurial spirit in some locals. One man on Airbnb advertised a small wooden ‘lean-to’ shack that he has built on the roof of his garage. The shed—which has strict guest rules—is going for $315 per night.
For those fans travelling, they will have to embark on daunting journeys to see their teams, which are spread across huge distances, even with the tournament confined to European Russia. Aspion Tang, a 19 year-old Danish fan, said he would take an 18-hour train journey from Samara to Saransk.
“It’ll be exciting,” he said. “A real unknown.”
The tournament’s opening on Thursday will likely prove to be a relief for the Kremlin, which has weathered calls for the World Cup to be boycotted or stripped from Russia amid a stream of crises in recent years, as Russia has clashed with Europe over its invasion of Crimea, the Syrian war and election meddling. Even as the World Cup begins, Russia is facing international criticism over its imprisonment of a Ukrainian film director, Oleg Sentsov, who is on hunger strike and whose jailing has been denounced by rights groups as politically motivated.
Excitement has been building among Russian fans. Some of the sport’s most famous stars have been drawing crowds at their training bases. In the small town of Bronnitsy outside Moscow, several thousand people reportedly arrived at a tiny school to try to watch Lionel Messi, voted the best player in the world five times, train with his Argentinian teammates.
“We are a friendly people,” said Alla Zaitsev, 72, a pensioner watching the Brazilian fans in Moscow, describing how supporters would be welcomed.
“We love people. We love our country. We love our Putin.”
There is one area though where Russians have no expectations— the national team’s prospects. Russia is now the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, below even their first opponents Saudi Arabia, having failed to win any of their last 7 games and managing only a single shot on target in the past two.
Pundits have noted that Russia’s other opponents in its group— Egypt and Uruguay— are conveniently weak sides for the hosts, but a recent poll of by the magazine Sports Express found fewer than 50 percent of Russian fans expect the team to make it to the play-offs.