English, Russian Media Play Blame Game as Soccer Fans Clash in France
Press outlets take sides, UEFA issues a suspended disqualification to Russia and one senior official suggests French police were too used to handling "gay pride marches" to deal with soccer fans.
Hindsight can be a wonderful thing.
In retrospect, setting the Euro 2016 soccer match between England and Russia — two teams known for having violent elements within their fan base — in the French city of Marseille, noted for its own groups of "ultras" hooligans, might not appear as the wisest move.
Sure enough, ugly scenes broke out between fans ahead of the first-round group game on Saturday and later moved into the Stade Velodrome stadium itself, with Russians seen charging across dividing lines towards England supporters.
The media on both sides immediately stepped into gear, with videos of chairs, bottles and fists being thrown on the streets of Marseille airing across news channels in the two countries and beyond. Scenes of fans being knocked unconscious and stamped on amid clouds of police tear gas marred what had otherwise been an exciting match to watch (it ended 1-1, with a late Russia goal spoiling England’s dominance of the game).
In the U.K., the response has varied considerably. England’s history of soccer hooliganism — which came to a head in the 1980s when its clubs were banned from European competitions — ensured much of the initial analysis in the broadsheet papers and on TV was balanced, with concerns that the country had returned to the dark days three decades earlier.
In the tabloid press, however, the blame for the “sickening” and “orchestrated violence” that left 35 — mostly England supporters — injured was leveled squarely at the feet of the Russia advocates, notably 150 “well trained” ultras who had reportedly come to France with the express intent on taking on England fans, and winning.
Given the scenes from the stadium and looped videos of England fans lying face down on the streets, not to mention GoPro footage uploaded online by an actual Russian hooligan showing himself delivering kicks and blows to his rival supporters, the evidence did seem to back up claims of where the fault lay.
On the Russian side, the initial reaction in the media was to mostly blame the England fans, while praising its own, and in some cases appearing even proud of the seeming off-field Russian victory.
On the Life.ru website, a report showed what it meant to “awaken the Russian bear,” discussing the “cowardly flight” of England fans after they had, according to the item, themselves provoked the mass brawl in Marseille city center. Popular tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda suggested that “even British journalists who witnessed the fighting admitted that English fans had incited the Russians by insulting their national flag.”
But it wasn’t simply confined to the press, with politicians joining in with chest-thumping nationalistic pride.
On Monday, Igor Lebedev, a member of parliament for the Putin-loyalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and a senior Russian soccer union executive board member, tweeted: "I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!"
His comments were followed Tuesday by remarks from Vladimir Markin, a senior Russian police official, who claimed French police were unable to handle what he termed Russia's "normal" soccer fans in Marseille because they were more used to policing "gay pride marches." In the wake of the deadly mass shooting in an Orlando, Fla., LGBT club early Sunday, the remarks were seen as particularly damaging to Russia's international image.
By this stage, however, UEFA had already stepped in.
While European soccer’s governing body’s first response was to threaten both England and Russia with expulsion from the competition, its eventual ruling backed the opinion that Russian fans had been behind much of the violence, issuing the team a suspended disqualification, warning that it would be thrown out of Euro 16 should any further trouble erupt, alongside a fine of almost $200,000.
UEFA’s decision — perhaps with the addition of Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup — saw the response from Moscow change from bravado and bad taste to a more conciliatory approach.
Most state-run Russian media translated the official stance that the Russian fans' misbehavior was "unacceptable,” with many outlets republishing a quote from President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling on Russian fans to behave "responsibly."
Peskov also criticized the incendiary statements by Markin and Lebedev, quoted by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti as saying that they "in no way" reflected the Kremlin's stance on the issue.
The website Polit.ru ran a poll on its account on Russian social network VKontakte about the behavior of Russian fans at the tournament. Just over 51 percent said their attitude toward Russian fans' behavior was negative and they should be punished, and 21.5 percent said fights were a normal part of the soccer world.
Thankfully, Russia won’t face England again in the group stage of the competition, but with Russia due to meet Slovakia on Wednesday afternoon in Lille, just 22 miles from Lens, where England will take on Wales on Thursday, there was fear that those who wanted to fight would be on each others' doorsteps.
Flying in the face of the UEFA threats, reports came out Tuesday of clashes in Lille, with an AFP photographer describing scenes in which about 150 England supporters in a cafe were confronted by a group of Russians dressed in black, some wearing face masks and “Tour de France” T-shirts baring the name of the “Orel Butchers,” the hardcore Lokomotiv Moscow club fans accused of much of the trouble during the England-Russia game. Once again, chairs and glasses were thrown before police moved in. Russian media showed a video of England fans stomping on a Russian flag in an apparent attempt at provocation.
Were violence to kick off in the Russia-Slovakia game and the former be expelled from the tournament, it would be a severe blow for a country scheduled to host the world’s biggest soccer competition in just two years.
Speaking at a press conference, Russian striker Artem Dyuba suggested that the U.K. media coverage of current events had a political agenda aimed at the upcoming tournament. “We can see the things the British media are talking about, talking about the World Cup 2018 and they’re saying that they have to take it away from Russia,” he said.
But even without the Euro 16 violence, British media outlets had already expressed concerns about the World Cup being held in Russia. On Tuesday, veteran BBC radio commentator Alan Green — who has covered every major tournament over the past 30 years — revealed that he was boycotting the event over the “horrendous atmosphere” he had experienced on previous trips to the country.