Streetwise Professor

June 22, 2016

Sometimes Hooligans are Just Hooligans

Filed under: Politics,Russia,Sports — The Professor @ 8:12 pm

The UEFA Euro 2016 has seen the usual hooliganism. What would soccer–football, excuse me–be without it? (Isn’t it interesting how the “beautiful game” routinely sparks violence while a game denigrated for violence–American football–seldom does?)

Nothing new about that. What makes Euro 2016 somewhat unique is the focus on Russian hooligans, and the attribution of malign political motives to them, and most importantly, direction from the very top.

The English mixed it up with the Russians in Marseille, and got the worst of it. The English press was whinging about the unfairness of it all. Apparently, as opposed to being fat, drunken louts like proper English hooligans, the Russians were hard, sober toughs. That’s not cricket!

Englishman Tim Newman–whom I’m honored comments periodically here–was having none of it:

You’ve got to love the British press:

England fan fighting for his life and dozens more injured as English fans and Russian thugs clash at Euro 2016 in Marseille

The English were fans.  The Russians were thugs.  Presumably no Englishman in Marseille last night displayed thuggish behaviour, and no Russian showed the slightest interest in football.

. . . .

But what I never heard, in all my time in Phuket or indeed ever in my life, was a story told to me by non-Brit complaining of getting into a fight with another non-Brit.  For whatever reason, Frenchmen don’t seem to end up fighting Spaniards in beach resorts and Germans somehow manage to rub along all right with Italians on holiday without kicking the shit out of one another.  The common element in all the fighting in beach resorts across the world, particularly the Mediterranean, is the presence of young Brits.  Little surprise then that the only trouble seen thus far at the Euro 2016 tournament features the same demographic.

There were battles involving other nationalities pretty much everywhere matches were played. It’s what those oh-so-civilized Euros do.

It may well be true that the Russians were fitter, better trained, and more organized, and kicked ass as a result. It may well also be true that members of the Russian security forces and veterans of the Donbas were among the Ultras. But to claim that this is part of “Putin’s special war” is beyond idiotic.

One of the main pieces of “evidence” that have been trotted out to suggest official complicity are the Tweets of Duma deputy speaker Igor Lebedev: “I don’t see anything bad in the fans fighting. On the contrary, well done guys. Keep it up!” and “I don’t understand those politicians and bureaucrats who are now denouncing our fans. We need to defend them, and they’ll come home and we’ll sort it out.”

Deputy Speaker of the Duma. Sounds pretty official and important, right? Except that (a) the Duma is merely a Potemkin legislature, and (b) people like Lebedev (who is a member of Zhirinovsky’s party) are in the Duma precisely to provide an outlet for the nationalist loons: better to have them inside the Duma where they can be watched and controlled and do no harm, than out on the streets making trouble.

It’s actually embarrassing to cite someone like Lebedev as a barometer of official Kremlin (i.e., Putin) policy. It’s a case of those who are talking don’t know, and those who know aren’t talking.

And really, you have to pick a narrative. Those pushing the story that  Russian soccer hooligans are conducting special warfare in Europe also  portray Putin as a mastermind playing chess, and dominating ineffectual and overmatched European and American leadership. But these claims are almost impossible to reconcile.

At the very time that Europe is vacillating about maintaining sanctions against Russia, and there are deep divisions within Europe about whether to confront Russia more forcefully (moves that German FM Steinmeier called “saber rattling”), the soccer hooligans are an irritant in the Russian-European relationship. No, Putin is not about be all warm and fuzzy, but he has no reason to engage in provocations that alienate the German and French governments, but which produce no tactical or strategic benefit.

In the realm of sport in particular, this couldn’t come at a worse time. Russia’s reputation is already at rock bottom due to the doping scandal which has resulted in the banning of Russian track and field athletes from the Olympics, and could conceivably result in the barring of Russian participation from Rio altogether. Hardly an opportune time to cast Russian sportsmanship in an even worse light.

It would be incredibly short sighted and unproductive for Putin stoke soccer violence. What could he gain? Nothing that I can see. However, it is easy to see what it costs him: it increases the likelihood that sanctions will endure, and provides an argument for those advocating a more muscular approach to Russia.

Yes. Maybe Putin is that short-sighted and capable of cutting his nose to spite his face. But if that’s the case, he’s the antithesis of a strategic genius. He would be nothing more than a mouth-breathing numb-nuts like Lebedev.

Conversely, if  you choose the “Putin is a chess master” narrative, the Russian soccer thuggery suggests that the vaunted power vertical is not all encompassing, and that Putin does not exercise the complete control that is often attributed to him–perhaps not even over the security services. (His reorganization of those services supports this interpretation: why reorganize something that is completely at his beck and call?)

My take on all of this is that there are indeed a lot of obnoxious, violent Russians–just like there are a lot of obnoxious, violent Euros from any nation you care to name. Soccer hooliganism has become a Euro tradition, and the Russians are joining in: chalk it up to their integration into Europe! But as for broader political implications, if Russian soccer hooligans have official sanction, Putin isn’t very clever: indeed, he would have all the strategic acumen of the criminals in Fargo. And if they don’t have official sanction, Putin isn’t as omnipotent within Russia as he is widely portrayed.

Sometimes hooligans are just hooligans. Putin no doubt finds that hooligans have their political uses, but stirring trouble in Europe at such a fraught time isn’t one of them.

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  1. American football is so dull that the most it inspires to is drinking beer out the back of your truck on a stadium parking lot.

    Comment by aaa — June 22, 2016 @ 10:11 pm

  2. I thought it was very funny reading articles about this in the British press. English soccer hooligans have a rep and they just plain got their butts kicked and to the accompaniment of a whining British press. After enduring Dedovshchina this really was a walk in the park for the average Russian vet.

    Comment by pahoben — June 23, 2016 @ 4:32 am

  3. My take on all of this is that there are indeed a lot of obnoxious, violent Russians–just like there are a lot of obnoxious, violent Euros from any nation you care to name.

    It does seem to be mainly Eastern European countries with England as the Western European anomaly: there has been trouble with Croatian, Czech, and Russian fans but none at all with Irish, Welsh, Swedish, etc. Being born and raised in Wales I am a Welshman as far as this tournament goes, and with my living in Paris I’m able to see the behaviour of the different fans first-hand. Two weekends back I was in an Irish pub in Chatelet before the Ireland v Sweden match, and there were thousands of totally drunk Irish fans spilling out onto the road. They were rowdy but there wasn’t a shred of aggression or nastiness. Then some Swedish fans wandered into them and they were welcomed with open arms, exactly as it should be. It really does depend on the fans in question – as well as the sport: you don’t get any of this with rugby.

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 23, 2016 @ 6:39 am

  4. I sometimes use a contractor that is a Welsh Rugby fanatic. Even though his daughter married a good Rugby player he hasn’t forgiven her because he is English.

    Comment by pahoben — June 23, 2016 @ 7:18 am

  5. Props to the British people for Brexit.

    Comment by pahoben — June 23, 2016 @ 8:47 pm

  6. So, Britain leaves, London remains. London Airlift next?

    A propos “simple hooliganism” – your opinion is based on some assumptions, which are not obviously true.

    “In the realm of sport in particular, this couldn’t come at a worse time” – or a better time, depending on how you look at it. One of the goals of this special op would be to have Russia stripped of the FIFA 2018, thus saving some money while also saving face and reinforcing the “besieged fortress” narrative. That’s if Europe reacts harshly. If Europe reacts weakly, one more reason to subject it to ridicule. Win-win-win-win.

    “What could he gain? Nothing that I can see. However, it is easy to see what it costs him: it increases the likelihood that sanctions will endure” – and that is exactly what he gains.

    The “social contract” of the Russian nobility with the serfs used to be: you keep silent about how much we steal, we mercifully grant you some improvement of living standards. That stopped working by 2013, as stagnation meant there was nothing left for the serfs. So it’s “besieged fortress” now: “the falling living standards are because of the treacherous West, which we all have to unite against, and anyone attacking the main defenders of the Russian world is obviously a traitor”.

    Comment by Ivan — June 23, 2016 @ 11:28 pm

  7. You have to understand prof that for a certain British demographic, the ideal night out is 14 pints of beer followed by either a fight or a fuck – some sort of scuffle, basically, doesn’t matter what kind. The Russians and the Dutch are similar except that what the Dutch drink cannot be considered beer.

    They foregather at football matches because groups of consenting adults are thereby on hand to oblige with a fight, and are easily recognisable.

    Personally I think the fights are great and often make better viewing than the supposed match. They are a sort of soccer derivative, like a wheat futures contract and ten tons of wheat.

    We should IMHO televise the fights.

    Comment by Green As Grass — June 24, 2016 @ 6:24 am

  8. @Green
    What is your favorite Pub-you seem like an outstanding source for a recommendation

    Comment by pahoben — June 24, 2016 @ 9:00 am

  9. This one

    although I can’t guarantee the scuffle

    Comment by Green As Grass — June 24, 2016 @ 11:16 am

  10. @Green. Rodney Dangerfield had a line: “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” In your British demographic, that would translate to “I went to a fight and a football game broke out.”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 24, 2016 @ 4:20 pm

  11. @Green
    Looks pretty darn close to Heaven.

    Comment by pahoben — June 25, 2016 @ 10:59 am

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