Swaying slightly and smelling strongly of alcohol, the fan slammed his brand new running shoes onto the counter at a downtown Moscow sports shop. “I’m off to Poland, to the European championships tomorrow,” he told the sales assistant. “To support our guys,” he added, punching his fist into his palm.
Russia’s national football side face Greece on Saturday in Warsaw in their final group match at the Euro 2012 championships, which is being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. Anything but defeat will see Russia progress to the last eight, where they could face Germany on the anniversary of the day that Nazi forces rolled into the Soviet Union in 1941.
But for the hundreds of Russian fans expected to fly out for the game, events off the pitch are expected to be just as important as the deciding fixture with Greece. Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted a member of a Moscow hooligan group on Friday as saying that a group of “serious guys” were heading to Poland to seek revenge for an attack on their fellow supporters earlier this week.
Polish fans attacked thousands of Russian supporters marching through the center of Warsaw on Tuesday to mark Russia Day, the national holiday that marks the date that Russia withdrew from the Soviet Union. Dozens of people were injured in the fighting, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets in an attempt to restore order. Two Russian fans have so far been jailed for two and three months over their part in the brawl and another four remain behind bars as they await trial. But the vast majority of those arrested were Poles.
Although it’s likely the marchers would have been attacked in any event – given the history between the two countries and the well-documented Polish hooligan problem – a number of Russian fans were reported to be waving Soviet flags as they made their way through the streets of Warsaw. If true, this was either a dramatic failure to understand the meaning of the holiday or a clear attempt to provoke Poles, whose country was a Soviet satellite state from 1945-89.
Whatever the cause of the violence, scenes of what Russian state-television called “our fans being beaten up in Warsaw” prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to call Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk the day after the clashes to remind him that Euro 2012 organizers “bear full responsibility for the safety of fans from other countries on their territory.”
The Kremlin also sent the head of its human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, to Warsaw after the violence, to monitor the treatment of Russian fans, and he flew out again on Friday ahead of the match with Greece.
But Tuesday’s violence in Warsaw was not the first incident involving Russian fans so far at Euro 2012, which began last Friday.
Russia’s very first game at Euro 2012, the second match of the tournament, saw the side turn in a fine performance to beat Czech Republic 4-1. But off the pitch, things weren’t quite so admirable as a group of fans allegedly hurled racist insults at Czech black defender Theodor Gebre Selassie and threw flares onto the pitch. Fans also unfurled nationalist banners. UEFA subsequently hit Russia with a suspended six-point penalty for the qualifying stage for the Euro 2016 tournament, to be enforced in the event of a repetition of similar events.
Russian fans were also filmed beating up Polish stewards in a walkway at the 40,000-capacity Municipal Stadium in Wroclaw. The head of Russia's official fan club, Alexander Shprygin, later said the stewards had been “given a kicking” after they tried to detain a fan in what he said was a ‘heavy-handed manner.”
All of this led the head of the Russian football’s governing body, Sergei Fursenko, to issue a startlingly frank warning to fans of the national side travelling to Poland.
“We all need to be very careful,” he said. “When we travel to Europe, we encounter a normal legal environment, something that we are not used to.”
Polish police were reported by national media to be bringing in water cannons and reinforcement for expected clashes between local fans and Russian supporters at the weekend.
But the fan interviewed by Kommersant denied there was a political context to the violence.
“The Poles just want to prove they are the wildest hooligans in Europe,” he said.