Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Russian Football Matches Mirror Russian Reality – the Real Battles are in the Stands

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 5 – Football matches in Russia increasingly are attracting attention not because of the level of skills of the competitors but because of the behavior of the fans who use such matches, especially when they are between teams from different republics or nationalities to vent their nationalistic and xenophobic views.

            A game between the Central Army club and the Anzhi team from the North Caucasus last Saturday provides a clear indication of this because in contrast to many such games the entire country got to hear the exchanges because one of the organizers left a microphone on too close to the fans (

            Commenting on this situation for Kavkazskaya politika, Vasily Polonsky points out that “the fans of the army club in recent years have acquired the unofficial title of the most intolerant and aggressive regarding Caucasians, Muslims, and African Americans on the territory of Russia.”

            Indeed, he continues, “in the majority of attacks on Caucasians and immigrants in Moscow, the fans of the Army club are participating,” although he adds that “no one is saying that only they are doing this, but the regularity of such cases [of their participation] forces one to reflect.”

            Things have only gotten worse since the army club’s decision in 2011 not to take part in matches in the North Caucasus, a decision “one can understand,” Polonsky says, “because after what [its fans] have done in Moscow regarding people from the Caucasus republics, they are hardly going to be met there with bread and salt.”

            What makes this and similar decisions to boycott matches in the North Caucasus is that “the Russian Football Union loves to conduct marches” precisely there because of the existence of good stadiums there in which they can take place. But even with the boycotts, there are problems because North Caucasian teams still come to Moscow.

            Last weekend, even before the match began, fans on both sides began to shoot imprecations at each other as attempts at intimidation. Normally, people beyond the stadium don’t hear what is said, but this time, someone left a microphone too close to the fans and everyone watching the game on Moscow television heard what was being said.

            For a sampling of what the Russian fans said about the North Caucasians, see Sadly, the Russian fans did not limit themselves to shouting; they physically attacked some of the fans of the North Caucasus team and put up banners suggesting that the latter were from “the planet of the apes.”

            Such things, Polonsky argues, “could not pass unnoticed because the issue of relations among nationalities is a most interesting one for domestic media and of course, the very most nerve-wracking for the Russian authorities who cannot close it off and even kill it with their own forces.”

            Immediately after Saturday’s match, each team, trying to claim the high ground, blamed the other, with the Russian side blaming the Daghestanis for attacks on Russians and the Daghestani side declaring that “if this entire situation had taken place outside the stadium, then [the Russian fans] would have received sentences for inciting inter-ethnic hostility.”

            Russian television commentator Aleksey Andronov told his viewers that he had been at many football matches in Russia and in Ukraine, “but such a quantity of crude language over 90 minutes” as happened last weekend, he had “never heard anywhere.”  Why did this happen, is “difficult to say.”

            But in words that will only raise the temperature of such conflicts, he suggested that “most likely this was a planned action,” even one that was “financed,” adding that “unfortunately, this is what is taking place in our country” now.”  As a result, there is likely to be more of this.

            What happened at this match and what has happened at others like it, Polonsky continues, “forces one to think about who precisely benefits from this especially given that all the enumerated violations of the law are documented and fixed by video cameras but there are no arrests or even the opening of criminal cases.”

            Andronov agrees and asks rhetorically whether team managers should use “baseball bats” to keep their fans in line given that Russian laws are anything but perfect and in any case, “no one is rushing to observe them.”

            Polonsky concludes with regret: “It turns out,” he says, “that our football is a reflection of what is taking place in our government.” The only thing that such conflicts among football fans seem to have achieved, he continues, is that “our supreme power” for a long time has preferred ice hockey – in which, although Polonsky doesn’t mention it, there are few non-Russian players.

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