A week of wonder beaten and bruised by Russian desire for a hooligans’ league
The beautiful game shows its best as Barcelona stun Paris St Germain and Bayern Munich down Arsenal again, but also worst side as leading Russian politician calls for organised fighting ahead of 2018 Fifa World Cup
Pinch yourselves. Yes, this spectacular week did happen. The greatest comeback was achieved in Barcelona, a gobsmacking rally against defeat witnessed in Germany and a rout to end all routs in North London.
Miracles at the Nou Camp, a hat-trick in Signal Iduna Park and a mauling at the Emirates Stadium.
Grown-ups blubbed, commentators scarred vocal chords and the watching world celebrated the wonder of football – the drama, the tension, the roller coaster raid through the spectrum of emotion, from pathos to rapture in 90 breathless minutes – knockout football at its most brutal and sublime, a showcase of European finery.
You’d like to think the host of football’s next global festival – Russia’s 2018 World Cup – would be taking encouragement from the last seven days.
Fat chance. During the week of weeks, a leading Russian politician, Igor Lebedev, revealed his big sports idea – to legalise football hooliganism and put 20 thugs in an arena dressed in their team’s colours and watch them knock seven bells out of each other. There would a be points system and league table – top Saturday night telly for the family.
In any other week you’d dismiss Lebedev’s comments.
Only problem is Lebedev is the deputy speaker of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, and is head of his party’s youth wing and here’s the clincher – he sits on the board of the Russian Football Union.
He’s serious. He published his proposal on his party’s website, stating: “Russia would be a pioneer in a new sport. Fans arrive, for example, and start picking fights. And they get the answer – challenge accepted. A meeting in a stadium at a set time.”
Following clashes between his country’s fans and England supporters at Euro 2016, Lebedev said he “did not see anything terrible about fans fighting”.
Russia has significant hooliganism problem, just as the UK and other countries once had. Only the latter nations have moved on, grown up and have the police, rule of law and free media to condone hooliganism whenever it threatens to rise again.
The problem with Russia’s football thuggery is that all the evidence points to the state run by the same cronies and shadowy figures who sanctioned the mass state doping of Russian athletes.
A recently shown BBC documentary recorded a hooligan leader, known as “Vasily the Killer”, claiming Russia’s so-called Ultras “were special military forces of football hooligans sent by Vladimir Putin to conquer Europe” at Euro 2016 in France last summer.
Lebedev, you’ll recall, initially congratulated the attackers for defending their country’s honour before Uefa threatened to throw them and England out the tournament.
He has a worryingly close association with another hooligan leader Alexander Shprygin, who ran across Marseille like a Viking and was deported from France.
Only when the images of violence in France ran alongside those of the armed thuggery in Ukraine and began to tar Russia as a nation run by violent paramilitaries did President Putin feel the need to brand the supporters’ savagery a “disgrace” – though he ended the statement with a cold kicker.
Adding, to laughter among his fawning courtiers, he cracked: “I don’t know how 50 Russian fans could beat several thousand of the British...”.
Into such rich wit and repertoire will the football family walk in 15 months.
True, not too long ago English hooligans shamed the UK and harmed the game, and thankfully were banned from travelling, their teams ousted from competitions and treated with disdain for years, a tough lesson they most have learned by.
But Russia’s hooligan problem has much darker overtones. To even speculate the state is behind the orchestrated violence is worrying enough.
That the country’s leaders publicly cheer such mad behaviour and dare make public an idea for an unmitigated violence league should put off any fan from travelling to the country next year. God help any other foreign fan in club colours given the country’s intolerance of individual liberty.
And good luck in believing Fifa will step in and warn Russia’s leaders to rein in their boot boys ahead of 2018.
After CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg fans offered a pilot episode of Lebedev’s gladiatorial bloodlust last weekend, Fifa’s president Gianni Infantino insisted he is “not at all concerned” by such violence ahead of the World Cup.
You have to pinch yourself again to believe the beauty of the game so eloquently exhibited this week can possibly co-exist in the same universe as Fifa’s wilful ignorance and the Russian government’s love of blood sports.