Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Russian football fans - more English than the English?

The Cynical Challenge is back on tour. After January's weekend in Zagreb to take in an ice hockey match, this time Russian football is on the agenda. I'm in Moscow, where the streets are paved with either gold or discarded beer bottles, depending on your viewpoint.

Though The Cynical Challenge is here in a professional capacity, to research various aspects of Russia's football league system, it's been difficult to avoid being sucked into the country's seductively heady mix of cultural heritage and, ahem, cheap booze. That's even more the case at the moment, as Russia has just marked the 9th May holiday, Victory Day, celebrating Russia's victory over Fascism in Europe in 1945.

 Just one of the many Victory Day banners around central Moscow

Over the weekend Muscovites pulled out all the stops to mark the 65th anniversary of Victory Day. There were all the usual festivities - patriotic songs, parading of veterans, street parties, fireworks and the like - alongside a very public demonstration of Russia’s array of tanks, military aircraft, armoured vehicles and weaponry. Imagine it as a village fete where first prize in the tombola was an atom bomb.

Still, it was an enjoyable day, and moreover a perfect example of the pride large numbers of modern Russians take in their country’s heritage.

Which is interesting, considering that their football fans tend to doff their caps to England. For them, English football is the lead to follow.

This doesn’t only comprise the action on the pitch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the high profile of the English Premier League compared to Russia’s domestic league, many Russian football followers prefer to watch televised matches from England to watching their own local teams.

No, more than that, Russian football fans revere English football’s traditions – and particularly the hooligan element which, many of them assume, continues to play a decisive role in English footballing culture.

Having attended a Russian Premier League match between Spartak Moscow and Anzhi Makhachkala in my first few days in Russia, I got into conversation with some fans after the game. One of them, knowing I was English, asked me what I thought about Dougie Brimson. His face was a picture of disappointment when I told him I had no idea who Dougie Brimson was. Indeed, having mentioned the anecdote to a number of football fans in Russia, all of them have heard of the exploits of the man – a former hooligan turned writer who has chronicled the ultra-violent exploits of British fans in a number of books. His works are bestsellers in Russia.

Tales such as those told by Dougie Brimson, along with films such as Green Street (which Brimson also wrote) and Football Factory, have helped to raise the profile of English football’s hooligan traditions in Russia – even as these tendencies have rather fallen away amongst supporters in England. Indeed, many Russian fans I have spoken to during my time here continue to believe that at many clubs the gang violence of the 1970s and 1980s is alive and kicking (pun very much intended). Ask young Russian fans – one I spoke to was as young as 13 – who their favourite English club is and, apart from the usual suspects (Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea in particular), Millwall and West Ham tend to figure unusually prominently.

The reverence on the terraces for England occasionally becomes outright mimickry. CSKA Moscow fans, for example, chant their club’s name in English. Banners around Russian stadiums are often written in English. Even terrace fashions are consciously and scrupulously copied, from Burberry caps to Sergio Tacchini tracksuits. And, inevitably, football-related gang violence is not uncommon.

The ubiquitous "Burberry" cap, sported by a CSKA Moscow fan
Ironically, in following what they perceive to be the English model of football fandom, Russians have in fact created a more exciting and atmospheric football environment than the rather sanitised experience to be found at many English Premier League matches. This is not to draw a rather twisted connection between football’s power to entertain and fan violence – more an observation that high ticket prices, a clampdown on anti-social behaviour and all-seater stadiums in England have robbed many Premier League football matches of an edginess which is prevalent in Russian football.
Indeed, it's probably not unreasonable to suggest that, as far as terrace behaviour these days is concerned, Russians are more English than the English.


Ingumsky said...

Very good post James. As ever. That's really interesting to get an insight into imagination you as a foreigner get from Russia. And your opinion on Russian fans who try to emulate English supporters and try to "keep English hools culture in safe hands" is even more interesting reading for me :)

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James