Welcome back, dear football hooligans! It’s been a while (roughly five minutes?) since we’ve last heard from you! Thank you for choosing such a colorful entrance back into the front pages of Russian newspapers! Throwing a flare onto the pitch and nearly blinding a goalkeeper? That’s some grade-A, photogenic, newsworthy mayhem you have just unleashed! Good for you!
…It was at a match between Dynamo Moscow and Zenit, and the injured party was Moscow goalkeeper Anton Shunin. Shunin was lucky that the flare didn’t hit him directly in the face – his career as a footballer could have ended right then and there. A criminal investigation is ongoing. Everyone is saying all of the right things about what occurred. Lots of people are angry about this – including many actual Zenit fans.
But is anyone talking to the hooligans themselves? Out of curiosity more than anything, I called up an old acquaintance from St. Petersburg, one who had admitted to “kind of a rough past” as a teenage football fan.
He didn’t want to talk about this, but then I called him up again. And again. I can be very persistent and annoying.
In the end, he said the same things he was saying to me ten years ago, when we first met in Moscow. “There is a kind of culture of violence and, worst of all, nihilism that exists alongside Russian football. The kids [who do these kinds of things] aren’t all underprivileged, they aren’t all messed up – they’re just having a good time. No one has taught them that ‘a good time’ shouldn’t mean injuring people, or taunting them with racist chants, or generally acting like an idiot.”
“I did it for the lulz” is a common enough refrain in Russian football culture nowadays. My acquaintance believes that everyone is complicit in this. On one side, you have the obscene salaries of various international stars and coaches. On the other side, there are legions of fans that are as cynical as the club owners are – “they just express their cynicism in starker terms.”
I don’t know if I agree with that last bit. All across the world, star athletes and their coaches receive loads of money and recognition. Not everyone takes this as license to casually toss pyrotechnics onto the pitch – or worse.
A lot depends on how the football culture polices itself. If a critical mass of fans finally decides that not only are they going to behave themselves, but will also name and shame those who sow chaos, then and only then will real change take place.
The problem plaguing Russian football culture is a problem that plagues all levels of society – it’s an issue of apathy and resignation. “Nothing will ever change, so why should I care?” etc.
And yet football culture is evolving regardless of what anyone believes, or does not believe. Women, for example, are a growing presence in the stands. Sure, some of them can still out-hooligan any of the guys – but the important thing is, tectonic shifts are taking place under the surface.
Of course, it would help if the clubs themselves were interested in reforming Russian football culture – as opposed to merely raking in profits. Zenit, for example, demanded that a consequence of the match should be a technical loss for Dynamo Moscow. No one is taking responsibility for the flare incident – Zenit blames Dynamo, because Dynamo was selling tickets to the guest stands.
This latest round of finger-pointing and ass-covering is certainly classy. It also highlights the absence of solidarity within Russian football. It’s always us vs. them, and almost never an issue of: “Let’s all take responsibility for our collective failures, take a deep breath, and go on to play some actual football.”
Once again, it will take the fans to change all of this – but change also means holding your side to actual standards. Love can’t afford to be blind.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was borxn in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.