ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: “For this World Cup, we had a problem in Rostov,” says Maksim Kadaev, deadly serious. “There were drunk Switzerland fans walking along the road to the stadium, and they stopped to take a pee at the side. Many Russians took photos.
“Very big problem.”
The affable, veteran sports journalist breaks out laughing. Little is known about his hometown of Rostov-on-Don, but early last year and before its turn as a 2018 World Cup venue, the southern city made headlines outside of sport when it featured prominently in a BBC documentary on Russia’s football hooligans.
A group of balaclava-clad Rostov males was filmed brawling in the forest and promising, against the backdrop of a new stadium built just for the World Cup, “a festival of violence” at the global event.
The documentary stood out amidst a swell of warnings largely issued by UK media in the wake of clashes between Russia and England fans at the 2016 European Championship, and leading up to the start of the World Cup in June.
Yet with the tournament entering its knockout stages, aside from the odd isolated, small-scale scuffle between rival supporters, these hooligans have still to materialise - whether in Rostov or anywhere else in Russia.
Football anti-discrimination watchdog FARE on Saturday (Jun 30) also reported no significant incidents involving hooligans at the World Cup.
In Rostov, the traditional paramilitary group known as the Cossacks have been roped in to provide additional security during the World Cup.
“We’ve hosted a lot of foreign visitors, and there hasn’t been a single serious incident,” said Rostov’s deputy military commander Mikhail Anatolevich Bespalov.
“There was fear there’d be trouble, but it’s rubbish. Nothing has happened,” said Roman Soganov, another Rostov journalist. “In the end all Russians have embraced and given a good reception to visiting fans, whether from England or elsewhere.
“There have been no conflicts whatsoever,” Kadaev added. “Rostov has hosted five matches and the hooliganism didn’t happen here; it wouldn’t have anyway.”
In recent months, prominent Russian self-styled hooligans have also been quoted in other Western media, saying they’d been told by security forces to either disappear during the World Cup or be thrown behind bars - as part of president Vladimir Putin’s bid to put the country’s best foot forward for all to see.
A Rostov native claiming to be an “ultra” of the eponymous local football club said the government had applied enormous “pressure” on the hooligans ahead of the World Cup. He stressed that ultras, while hardcore supporters, were not the same as hooligans.
“That's why the hooligans started laying low and even skipping the games,” said the man, who refused to be named. “Because even smoking inside the stadium could become a reason for the police to block them from going to the World Cup.
“In the end, my sources tell me that most, if not all, of the hooligans were denied Fan IDs anyway.”
The initiative, debuting at the World Cup, requires ticket holders to first pass an online background check before being given an electronic card to access stadiums.
“We should trust the Fan ID system,” said Kadaev. “The World Cup is a big event, and it’s being taken very seriously by Russia.”
At Rostov’s FIFA Fan Fest - where the public can view live matches on a giant screen, for free - thousands of locals turned up on Sunday evening for Russia’s stunning penalty shootout victory over Spain in the round of 16.
Amongst the crowd were individuals dressed in tops and scarves proclaiming themselves as FC Rostov ultras; when five of them were approached by Channel NewsAsia, all said they did not want to talk about hooligans as they were here to enjoy the game.
CHALLENGING THEIR REPRESENTATION
Meanwhile a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter based in Rostov, who only wanted to be referred to as Alex, took issue with how his sport has come to be associated with football hooligans.
The infamous and widely-interviewed neo-Nazi Denis Nikitin, for instance, has often bragged about also being an MMA fighter, organiser and founder of the combat sport clothing brand White Rex. And in the BBC documentary, the Rostov hooligans are depicted as training in MMA for an upcoming scrap, which they participated in while garbed in popular MMA brands.
“There is no connection to what we do,” Alex shook his head. “MMA fighters have no interest and would never waste energy smashing shopfronts or running down streets throwing chairs.
“We have more to do with our time than hooligans - they don’t work, they don’t do sport, they just lie around like wastrels.”
He also questioned the existence of the MMA “gym” in the film. “It looks to me like a rundown little place where they just pretended to be training MMA,” said Alex. “The whole documentary, it’s just a provocation.”
Soganov, the Rostov journalist, added: “When the film came out, people here thought it was a lie and not credible. Some have said that the guys in the show have Ukrainian accents. They may not be Russian at all.”
“All these years in Rostov, and I’ve never seen a single fight,” said Kadaev. “I don’t know, I may be wrong … But you are here. You can tell.
“And you can also see interviews of English fans and the squad itself, where they’re saying the information on Russia they got from back home is fake,” he noted.
“Look, it is absolutely not the truth that hooligans will affect the World Cup … It’s like Sochi all over again.”
The Russian resort city’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics was marked by terror threats and reports of unsafe stadiums, subpar hotels and other organisational concerns - but passed without serious incident.
Kadaev paused. “I mean, fighting in the forest, seriously? My god! We are a modern country, you know.”