A Date From Hell?


On 24 February 2022, Russia launched an unprovoked, large-scale military invasion of Ukraine, its neighbour to the southwest, marking an escalation to a conflict that began in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Donbass. Stop The War!

Many a lonely man has fallen in love with a beautiful Russian woman online and sent her cash, only to find out she has taken the money and run and was probably never even a woman in the first place.

A Date From Hell?

This summer the Football Association has a date to keep with Mother Russia herself but is currently squabbling with her like a betrayed groom to be, even threatening to call the whole thing off.

How unfavourably aligned are their stars right now.

The apparently state-sponsored murders of a Russian dissident in London and the use of a banned nerve agent to dispatch another in sleepy Salisbury do not bode well for a stress-free visit of the Football Association to Russia in June.

Its president the Duke of Cambridge has already cancelled his trip.

Above the world of football the two nations are at loggerheads, trading insults and expelling each other's diplomats willy-nilly while binning once again any hopes of a healthy relationship.

And England's supporters, already planning their trips with a little trepidation after what happened in Marseille two years ago, will be sighing at yet another external worry.

Keep politics out of sport cry the exasperated; if only that were possible.

At the England v Russia clash at Euro 2016, Russian hooligans charged harmless England supporters inside the Stade Velodrome and attacked others outside with weapons including iron bars, leaving two Englishmen in comas.

Why? Was it merely the thugs' desire to test their nastiness against the inventor of the pastime?

Seasoned watchers were shocked at the level of violence but Russian leaders tut-tutted and even joked about the blatant crimes committed by their citizens, instead of offering the unequivocal condemnation one expects from governments.

Subsequent reports in England suggested the state had encouraged the attacks as part of President Vladimir Putin's asymmetric or 'hybrid warfare' with the West.

As Putin celebrates another election win by fanning the flames of nationalism, it would be a surprise if there is no violence surrounding England's first round games in Volgograd, Niszhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad.

Should Gareth Southgate's men advance, England will play next in Moscow or Rostov-on-Don. The events in France and the well-documented football hooliganism in Russian domestic football do not bode well for a trouble-free summer.

We should forget a unilateral boycott however. That would be the ultimate act of self-harm to the England team and hurt the purity of the sport's greatest competition.

A multi-country opt-out sounds attractive but is logistically impossible this close to the tournament, while it should be remembered that the American refusal to travel to the 1980 Moscow Olympics made no difference to the Soviet Union's presence in Afghanistan, their stated reason for not participating.

Maybe England's fans will misbehave so badly the team will be sent packing anyway while Russian hooligans can enjoy the luxury of being at home already so can run amok, in theory.

It is tempting to think the press is being unduly alarmist with its slew of scare stories on this topic where every bonehead is given a microphone, a pattern repeated before every major tournament, often by journalists with no experience of being travelling supporters.

Travelling overseas with England in the 1990s I got frustrated with the fantastical coverage of spectator violence coming from Fleet Street, which often bore little reality to the situation on the ground, even from the broadsheet press.

The media should be more responsible and not promote hooliganism before each tournament, pour encourager les autres. But chicanery, standard in a country without a free press, is also one of the prices of a free press in others.

Alas, Russian football racism and violence has a long and blotted copybook so fears of violence cannot be completely dismissed as the usual hooligan hysteria.

In October 2017, Detective Chief Constable Mark Roberts, head of UK policing at Euro 2016 and Russia 2018, said that English fans faced "a genuine threat" in Russia this summer.

"There is an active hooligan issue in Russia," said Roberts, "and it generally operates at a pretty extreme level of violence."

Roberts was quick to admit however that he had full confidence in the Russian police preventing any outbreak of fighting.

Andrei Zakharov, Moscow's deputy chief of police, echoed his reassurance.

"It is definitely safe for British fans to come here," he said last autumn. "Everything will be secure. There is nothing to be afraid of."

The peaceful unfolding of last summer's Confederations Cup gives cause for hope and we do expect the Russians to act with force when required.

Public disorder in June would be played out in front of a billion worldwide viewers, a feasible scenario which would lead one to think Vladimir Putin will demand his country put on its Sunday Best.

It certainly put on an expensive and flamboyant show for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games as a way of promoting Russia and brand Putin, with spectacular opening and closing ceremonies peppered by a generous helping of nationalism.

Putin's cult of personality is as strong as ever so he will not want the World Cup to be a damp squib as he knows a violence-marred tournament would resonate more than bumping off the odd turncoat with a poisoned cuppa.

At the same time it is hard to know how much the Kremlin cares about its reputation going into the Finals which is an interesting paradox.

In the wake of the Russian athletes' doping scandal, the proxy war in the Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the interference in the U.S. Presidential election, the assassinations of various dissidents and the President's boasting about his latest nuclear missiles, one cannot help wonder if merely winning the bidding for 2018 was enough for Putin.

Fortunately for Moscow, Ukraine has failed to qualify as well as the USA, which leaves England as its convenient persona non grata.

The UK Foreign Office is certainly doing little to cool the tension.

Its website warns visitors to Russia to "be aware of the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time."

It goes on to warn ethnic minorities of "unwanted attention" and British tourists in general of robbery, dating scams, spiked drinks and "groups of women or children who beg".

It also reminds us that "terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks" such as the bomb on the St. Petersburg metro last year which killed 15 people.

Against this backdrop it is surely incumbent on England fans to behave impeccably, although that in itself sounds comically fanciful.

It is true that these days England's travelling fan army, of which I have been a part many times, are more sinned against that sinning, paying for the baggage of the 1970's and 1980's heyday of hooliganism.

Yet at the same time, large groups of them do not help themselves by disrespecting local traditions with their aggressive and xenophobic chanting which plumbs the depths of boorishness, stupidly referencing the Northern Irish conflict, the Taliban or the European Union.

As recently as last week, some Chelsea fans in Barcelona were taunting the Catalans by singing 'You'll always be Spain.' This is not 'banter', this is yobbery.

Gathering in squares to neck beer en masse and covering local monuments with flags is something the Dutch, Germans, Irish and Scots do too but without any hint of trouble. Yet all too regularly with England fans,  as the evening wears on and the alcohol takes effect, the sound of smashing glass, animalistic roars and police sirens arrives.

Being happy, enjoying the local culture and hospitality and making friends should be high on any England fan's agenda but too often it is not. Russia is a proud and special nation and deserves respect, not forthright assertions of superiority from foreigners on its soil.

While congregating en masse in the closest approximation to an English boozer is not wrong in itself and you can forgive disorientated young men ill at ease overseas for thinking there is safety in numbers, the risk of trouble increases with that behaviour too.

So if the Three Lions's travelling support make a point of being good tourists in Russia this summer but are still targeted by the local louts, at least the watching world will be in no doubt where the blame lies.

Sometimes all the doom and gloom and predictions of disaster from afar turn out to be just scaremongering.

Let us at least hope that this potential date from hell has a happy ending. People forget how easy it is to bond across cultures via a shared love of the Beautiful Game.

So here's to Anglo-Russian friendship via football.

Na zdorovie (Cheers)!

The Dark Side of Russia

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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