Here, in the second and final part of our reflection on events surrounding World Cup 2018, we’ll try and apply some perspective, learn about the pleasant face of the Russian police and that the Brits can behave abroad, with the right ‘incentive’, or should that be ‘consequences’? Here’s where we parted last time, on the fear of stepping outside.
Fear in the global village
Would you stay away from New York because there is an armed conflict in the city of Columbia? If that seems like a strange, even absurd question, consider that some travelers decided not to visit Moscow because of the conflict in Donetsk, not only a similar distance away (approx 600 miles) but also in another country, Ukraine. For Brits it would be similar to cancelling a trip to John o’Groats (on mainland Scotland’s North Westerly tip) because there is conflict on the streets of London.
You could walk across Red Square and not even know that there were/are problems across the border. Similarly, I mentioned my (then) impending visit to Ukraine to a relative who remarked with some consternation: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?!”. Well, yes I did, there was, (and sadly still is): 600 miles east of my host city. Needless to say: I didn’t hear a single gunshot. This is an oversimplification of course as I’m omitting the heightened risk of terror attacks on civilian targets during periods of conflict. Such attacks can occur potentially anywhere, even at home of course. It’s down to the individual traveler to decide where he or she draws the line for a total ‘bail-out’, and some research (and perspective) helps in this regard, naturally.
The above also applies to the recent World Cup of course, which saw around 10,000 England fans visit Russia for the tournament. As previously mentioned, I’ve no interest in football, but I do have a great interest in international systems of security, social structure and organisation. That figure sounds substantial, but it was only one quarter of the numbers that could be expected for similar events in Europe (or even America) for example. So, what factors were at play?
We’ve already looked at threats issued by hardcore Russian fans against their English counterparts, but there were also counter-threats reciprocated by English extremists with a view to achieving ‘revenge’ for the events in Marseille 2016. Between the two extremes were the Russian police, perfectly capable of taking on all-comers on either side and incidentally the only genuine disincentive to home-grown Russian extremists. Indeed there were claims that hardened Russian supporters had stayed away from the Marseille incidents due to the expectation that French police would be similarly as ‘capable’ as the Russian authorities back home.
It doesn’t require much imagination to ascertain that the average supporter would not wish to be caught up in the three-sided grinding machine described above, several thousand miles from home and at considerable expense. For some the risks were simply too great.
Distance was also a factor in the layout of the tournament, with hundreds of miles of travel required between venues. For some matches this would have required a journey the length of England, which boggles the mind of many Brits. “Far away” takes on a whole new meaning in Russia. We’re just not used to thinking in such terms, on our (relatively) tiny island.
Expense was naturally a problem for some, with increased prices for accommodation, the cost of all the those train tickets and taxi fares and more, the visa and the general logistics of an extended Russia stay.
At any rate the foretold apocalypse did not happen, with the Russian authorities proving more than capable of handling the situation. I heard that they were ‘schooled’ in dealing with foreigners, unaccustomed to “robust” treatment. A concession to politeness? It’s hard to imagine!
“Fan IDs” were required for access to the tournament, and only issued to applicants of good standing. A Russian colleague informed me that 4000 international fans had been blacklisted as troublemakers and declined entry to Russia, thereby removing many potential problems before they occurred. Similarly, ‘problem’ fans at home were also banned and their movements tracked by facial recognition technology to ensure that they complied.
Fines, outright bans or even prison sentences were options for a variety of transgressions in a zero-tolerance clampdown ordered by Putin himself. It seems to have worked. In a remarkable turnaround even the most hardened home-grown supporters (the Russian Ultras) changed their position. As reported in the Independent, one even conceded:
“No one is getting ready to beat up foreigners… they understand that if they do that they are guaranteed to be sent to jail.”
So rather than World Cup 2018 becoming one of the most dangerous events, it turned out to be one of the safest and most positive. Foreign tourists were surprised at the welcome they received after much negative preloading and cultural stereotyping. Now with some wry, knowing humour their former Russian hosts enjoy the current running joke:
“So, the championship is over. Now we can relax; take the balalaikas from the shelves and finally let our bears out into the streets!”