Russia 2018: the ugly face of the beautiful game

19 June 2018

The World Cup is upon us, and while for many the festival of the football is a cause for celebration, the controversial decision to award this year’s tournament to Russia raises important issues not just for those with an interest in the interface between sport and international relations but more practically for those who have decided to travel as spectators. The unfortunate reputation of England fans, the current political hostilities between the UK and Russia and a range of little-known criminal offences could combine to cause parrot levels of sickness.

As is typical prior to international football tournaments, British police have been giving 110% and liaising with their counterparts in the host cities with a view to ensuring the safety of travelling fans. Less typically, the liaison for this tournament has been taking place in the shadow of the Skripal poisoning and the subsequent tit-for-tat diplomatic red cards. It is hoped that such high-level political skirmishing will not translate directly to negatively impact policing on the ground, but even if it doesn’t English football supporters are not renowned for their cultural sensitivity and there have been plenty of examples of local police forces taking a studs-up approach to crowd control without needing any additional nationalistic motivation.

The official Government advice to travelling fans, “Be on the Ball”, is notable for a complete absence of warnings about certain behaviours that might lead fans to fall foul of local prohibitions. Think smoking within 15 metres of any kind of public transport or swearing in public. This is the sort of practical information that anyone travelling to the World Cup ought to have in their kitbag (rather than the well-meaning, but not particularly enlightening, “cyber awareness” advice published by the NCSC). Instead, the expectation seems to be that fans will educate themselves if they want to avoid the hairdryer treatment.

One issue that has had enough publicity not to require separate advice is the risk posed by Russian hooligans. Events in Marseille during Euro 2016 were more than enough to demonstrate that England supporters are seen as targets by a criminal element within the Russians’ ranks. A crucial difference between 2016 and today is that the Russian ultras are now playing at home, and the self-assured posturing of Vladimir Putin is only likely to fortify those intent on causing trouble. It is not hard to envisage any foreign fans caught up in Russian hooligan-orchestrated violence bearing the brunt of any response from law enforcement.

Whether the infraction is relatively trivial or more serious, being at the mercy of the Russian criminal justice system can never be taken lightly. Lawyers (in the main extradition practitioners) and human rights activists with experience of Russian criminal justice can attest that the rule of law is flexible, to put it mildly. Prison conditions are also woeful. These may have been some of the considerations behind Peter Tatchell’s decision to take the first flight to an early bath. The best advice to those who decide they absolutely must travel is to take the utmost care to avoid the possibility of prosecution.

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