In Epic Russian Uefa Clash, Sport Mirrors Euro Politics
There are people out there who don’t like our western way of life. Who see us as pompous bullies, who take every opportunity to issue edicts against us and our European allies. Who take over territory and declare it theirs using underhanded subversive violence, claiming historic ownership to justify the annexation. This is a battle of ideals. And these people will fight our people everywhere, will organize to attack us even at our sporting events.
Those damn Russkies.
The Great Russian Uefa Clash
No, this isn’t going to be another article about Orlando. This won’t be another debate like we’ve all been having this week on Facebook about gun control vs. Muslim control. About whether he was a self-hating gay man or a radicalized Islamist. I’ll mention how strange it is that Trump has to confer with the NRA about forbidding people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns, as if you have to kiss Charlton Heston’s ring before making decisions about governance, as if suddenly the US government has to answer to an “educational nonprofit” that shills for a multi-trillion-dollar industry, as if it’s not hypocritical that man who claims to be above special interests has decided to make an exception for guns.inc. And now it’s on to Russia playing its role as international villain to a T by turning a soccer tussle into a neo-military skirmish.
Or more accurately, it’s on to France for the reverse Napoleon, the Russian Uefa clash.
Hooliganism is nothing new is soccer. The British are especially notorious for it. All pride American sports fans have need to be checked against the Euros who have a long history of fighting and rioting after every game, not just championship wins or losses.
Nor is teams being fined for fan activities; the Celtic was fined 10,000 pounds by the Uefa in February for fans launching off fireworks (though team lack of discipline had some play in it). So it wasn’t surprising what happened after Russia and England ended their opening round-1 game of the Uefa championship in a draw. Despite Britain’s dominance, a late Russian goal made the results an embarrassment for one of the world’s great footie powerhouses. Of course fights broke out. What was surprising was how quickly they escalated. Like, from the second they began they escalated. And the political firestorm the Russian Uefa clash seems to have ignited, a case where a simple 90 minutes of sport and a couple (allegedly) unsanctioned bad seed fans are setting off global tensions. Or perhaps they’re just proving to be a manifestation of them.
Reports were that the Russian fans had already been hunting British fans BEFORE the match. Afterwards, they supposedly threw smoke bombs into the security guards that keep opposing teams separate and in a “coordinated attack” crossed over with weapons and explosives to deliver a savage beating that spilled out into the streets. The British press and many other Western talking heads called these “Ultras,” a term seemingly derived from Anthony Burgess’s seminal novel about a dystopian England in which the Russians won the Cold War and the resulting communist world order led to miscreants wandering the streets engaging in ultra-violence. And in fact they’d been expecting these Russian gangs to show up in Marseille.
Hooliganism is one thing but this was something completely different. Theories of planes full of Russian military being flown in for the specific purpose of breaking their European enemies surfaced. And the Uefa handed down a 150,000 GBP penalty to Russia as well as an expulsion from the tournament. The expulsion was suspended with the caveat that another similar fan violation would result in Russia’s actual ejection from the tournament.
Immediately Russia’s captain and coach held a press conference denying all allegations and claiming the Brits gave as good as they got. Russian politicos took pride in how their fans beat up the opposing team’s fans, a show of poor sportsmanship out of a US soccer dad’s worst nightmare. But perhaps it was one-sided reportage, the Western jocks ganging up on the nation that’s European in geography only. Russia is the leather-jacket wearing loner tough on the playground, who carries a switchblade and could handle a handful of the letter jacket-wearers but not all of them. And who, just when you can almost admire his strong outcast image picks on the weakest kid (see: Ukraine) to show his dominance and steal some lunch money. And no doubt the thugs attacking Brits were certainly more than just drunk angry soccer fans.
But still, there is another side to this. There always is. This whole scene is about more than one game or even one Euro tournament. It’s about the world’s largest sporting event, a quadrennial happening that puts every other sporting finals tournament to shame for its national reach. It’s about the World Cup. And the fact that the pariah of first-world nations will be hosting this event after its last global athletic spectacle, the Olympics, was revealed to be a den of doping for the home team. Throw in today’s announcement that Russia’s track and field team will be banned from the Rio Olympics (great timing) and you have to wonder — is Russia being picked on or is the country as exemplified through its sport every bit our villain the Western press has painted them to be?
Sports As War
The analogy of sport as a replacement for war is a hackneyed yet apt one. We’ve supposedly evolved beyond a world where it’s acceptable to view all nations as our enemies. It’s only during the Olympics or the World cup — or the many smaller tournaments like the Uefa Championships or the Copa America — that a person can say “We’re better than those damn Germans” or “Down with the Mexicans” and it be taken as healthy fan fervor. The naming of a nation as a host country for the Olympics or the World Cup is such a matter of national pride that a nation claiming it doesn’t have enough money to raise its poorest citizens out of abject poverty (see: Brazil) can somehow come up with tens of billions fr dollars for sporting infrastructure that will likely never be used again and often contributes to greater economic decline in struggling nations (see: Greece). So it was a huge coup when Russia won the right to host the 2014 Sochi Olympics and then followed up by winning the right to host the 2018 Olympics.
Allegations of Russian bribery were hinted at in the recent trials to oust the FIFA leadership that had awarded it the 2018 Cup (though to be fair accusations also flew at Qatar, 2022 host). As such, the Russians have claimed that the allegations of organized fighters sent in to intimidate opponents was invented by the British media to force FIFA to move the World Cup to England, the nation that just barely lost the tournament hosting privilege. And after this battle, certainly cries for just that have risen to a fever pitch.
Ever since the atomic age, when all the superpowers realized that full materiel-based confrontation could result in the obliteration of whole cities in one bomb drop, international warfare has become more of a war of ideals and politics than of guns and bombs. The Cold War ended not after a historic battle but after the Russian people realized their socialist experiment wasn’t delivering the utopia it had promised, especially when they had food shortages and product embargoes while we capitalists were enjoying McDonald’s and cocaine. Russia’s chest-thumping annexation of Ukraine wasn’t met with US guns but with trade embargoes designed to remind the Russian oligarchs and by trickle-down their citizens that their money and privilege is only because they’re a part of the Western world.
Russia is a proud nation and rightly so. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky would be enough to cement their reputation but add in Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, vodka and their role in stopping global ambitions of both Napoleon and Hitler and there’s a lot to be proud of. And like them or not, for all intents and purposes Russia is one of the strongest nations in the world with a citizenry that’s just as sturdy. But overt war to prove the “strongest,” for reasons previously shown, is not an option. So athleticism is the last place where Russia can prove its strength. Putin just recently condemned the riots while letting some pride slip that 200 Russians beat up 1000 Brits. Yet you don’t often get a chance for international street fighting. As such, its ability to host these events and the inherent home field advantage are of utmost importance as Russia looks to reassert its international dominance.
But would the Russian establishment go so far as to resort to organized violence when they can’t prove their superiority in the field of competition? And if not, why do we punish the team for the sins of the aficionados?
Undercover Violence, Russian Style
Russia has already proven itself willing to dress up its soldiers as everyday citizens fighting a noble cause. While it’s still “alleged,” there is a lot of proof that Russia implanted its soldiers among the revolutionaries fighting to separate Crimea from the rest of the Ukraine.
So it makes sense that Russia would implant its soldiers in the crowds at the Uefa championships in Marseille to ensure that the rest of Europe quaked before the strength of the Russians. But another story has emerged, one that perhaps speaks a bit more to the complexities of Russian life.
Despite its reputation for rampant thuggery, Russia has cracked down on gangs, especially at its sporting events, to the point that the gangsters have had to move their turf wars, or whatever the hell it is, to the woods to have gang battles. They’ve trained in boxing and martial arts to win these backwoods boxing matches. According to one insider, that’s why the Russian hooligans were so fierce, so organized and such fierce fighters. As a response to the British fans’ provocations of taunts and insults and anti-Russian chants, these backwoods fighters unleashed their pent-up anger on a Europe that has rejected them all.
Twenty of the most violent Russian fans have been sent home and 3 imprisoned. Another 5 were just arrested in Cologne, Germany, after jumping a group of Spanish tourists on their way to the airport. And Russian politicos have begun rescinding their endorsement of the violence. Because an expulsion from Uefa would endanger their hosting of the World Cup. And these ultras or hypers or backwoods brawlers are backing up the Western world’s claims of a wild, angry thuggish Russia which would likely lead people to rethink travel to Russia for the World Cup. And a loss of the World Cup would be a huge black eye for the proud bear.
Because despite all the schoolyard tough’s claims, he just wants to be part of the cool clique — or at least get their respect.
Even more, this brings to question the idea of who’s a member of the power they’re supposedly supporting. Do we hold a nation accountable for random angry fans, self-trained to be more effective as a response to harsh government policing, even if the government offers words of support after the fact? And how much do we hold a team responsible for the violence of its supporters? Is this just everyday sport gone wild or something much more?
War of Ideals, Game of Footie
So now Europe’s greatest soccer tournament goes on. In a loss to Slovakia, Russian fans launched off flares, making some people question whether that means Russia should be expelled. At the same time, England’s narrow escape from Wales was followed up by British clashes with cops in Lille, resulting in 36 arrests. Yet there’s no talk of suspension or fining for Britain. Which brings back the Russian argument of the double standard. And now it becomes more than just a silly game where you’re not allowed to use your hands.
This is an example of a war of ideology, a study in how sport, especially international sport, is a macrocosm of the relations between people. It’s the beauty of sport, the idea of competition as proxy for conflict. How we can rarely tell who’s the really good guys and who is to blame. Is Russia to blame for its independent fans starting trouble? And if so, shouldn’t England be just as much to blame for their fans causing trouble in Lille? Is it just a difference in what Russians, people from a country that often lives up to its reputation of corruption and violence, think is just harmless steam-letting vs. what the Brits think is innocent rapscallionry? And does either have a place in sport or are they actually essential parts of sport, the clashing fans echoing their clashing teams? And finally, does the backdrop of the Brexit, of the rise of nationalism and of Russia’s vilified support of regimes such as Iran and especially Bashar Assad in Syria add extra heft to such competition?
This Uefa tournament and the upcoming Russian World Cup may be some of the most important international sporting events in the modern era. A national stage where opponents come together to get out their frustration with each other. And there may be clashes. There may be politicians getting involved in jingoism dressed up as fan pride and there will be greater spotlights put on our differences both as nations and as cultures. But there will also be a unity, however tenuous, in our joined celebration of athleticism.
For example many the Brits yell snarky songs and scrabble in the stands and the streets. A handful of the Russians, on the other hand, launch violent coordinated attacks. And a victory means more than one team simply having more goals than the other; a victory means a nation has made it, has won a battle without casualties on either side. Putin has claimed often that he misses the cold war. This may be the closest he can get to it and there’s certainly a nobility in getting out differences though competition and some knuckling up instead of Kalashnikovs vs. Remingtons.
As hatred and populo-nationalism threatens to overtake the world, this is a lesson we can all learn. And after the fruitless Facebook gun violence debates I’ve wasted the better part of a week on, it would be nice to have something that unites us even if just in competition.
Politics are everywhere today, even in sport. But that may be a good thing. It may be the best thing, actually. And as uncivilized as it may be, there may be some small victory that fans can skirmish and get nations to offer apologies instead of going to war. But even more, the echoes of global unease behind the international competition add an extra urgency to these games.
Regardless, when World Cup Russia 2018 kicks off, I plan on doing everything I can to ensure I’m there. It might be the best way I to experience war without shootings.
Or maybe I’ll get my ass beat. If it staves off a war I’m OK with that.