I remember the tone of a meeting that we held over a year ago and the consternation over events likely to transpire in Russia during World Cup 2018. None of us are football fans to this day, but the game itself wasn’t the issue. However, security, potential trouble, and its possible repercussions on the Russian travel industry definitely were.
Waiting ahead was the precarious three-way combination of extremist English soccer fans, their equally extreme (or even more so) Russian counterparts and the immovable object between both parties: the Russian police. The ‘Brit-abroad’ has a ghastly reputation within Europe, drawn both from the behaviour of booze-cruisers in cheap, warm, western European sun traps and from the globally televised disruption and violence of some (not all) football fans. A small number of individuals can certainly do a lot of damage, both physically and in terms of public relations.
Armed and Dangerous
We thought we’d heard it all when it came to the lengths some would go to inflict damage upon others over this particular game. Tales of improvised missiles, modified tools and knives, planned assaults and a network of known offenders filtered through the nation’s media to the increasing dismay of the public and authorities at large. Since the 1970s it became apparent that the sport had attracted organised gangs capable of causing real problems and expense for the UK emergency services that were caught in the immediate fray and left to pick up the pieces.
However, in advance of the 2018 event, tales of Russian extremist supporters reached the west with blatant threats to attack, -even kill English fans, as if mere maiming wasn’t enough. Statements (and interviews) surfaced, claiming existence of para-military style training exercises held in the Russian countryside, to prepare for the inevitable confrontation between Russian and English fans, with the tournament itself somehow relegated to the sidelines, or so it seemed. The memory of violent clashes between English and Russian fans in Marseilles at UEFA Euro 2016 was still fresh of course. The threat was deemed so great as to extend to other foreigners visiting Russia too, as declared by Global Risk Insights, among others:-
“The FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia will also be exposed to an increased risk of sporadic racist violence. Russian ultra-nationalists and football supporters may specifically target foreign supporters or tourists.” Not only was racist violence added to the volatile mix, but something equally dark, read on.
In addition to the activities of the respective fans, a further level of unpredictable treat was manifest, that of international terrorism. Since the early 1990’s, Russia has experienced a range terrorist incidents on home territories, plus a bomb explosion on board the incoming Metrojet Flight 9268 from Egypt (2015). The possibility of a very bloody and darkly memorable 2018 became very real.
What greater temptation could there be for a terrorist cell than masses of soft targets from many ‘enemy’ nations all crowded in the same place and channeled through the same transport system? (Metro/travel stations are favourite terror targets for the amount of people that pass through and the potential for civil disruption if attacked).
The unwelcome burden of preventing disaster and maintaining order fell to the Russian police and other authorities; not an enviable job assignment by anyone’s standards. However due to the reputation and capabilities of this homeland force, perhaps the decision to host the games in Russia was indeed fortuitous. It seemed likely that the World Cup 2018 would either be a complete disaster or an unmitigated success with little middle ground between.
Of course there was no way that Russian authorities would allow World Cup 2018 to be an international embarrassment on the world stage, -to lodge as a stain in the collective memory for years -if not decades- to come. Quite simply the event must not only be a success, but a Russian showpiece; a matter of pride and a successful demonstration of the capabilities of Russian security forces. Global reputation and potentially the future of Russian tourism were at stake depending upon the outcome. This may read as an overstatement but it really isn’t. There is a curious ‘just around the corner’ mentality that arises in the minds of some when incidents of violence occur. It’s as if the world is a village and that we shouldn’t step outside because someone has just blown up the post office a mere mile away. We’ll consider this, and more next time.