Is Russia exporting a new breed of football hooligan?

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Media caption,

What motivates Russian hooligans?

Violence has been part of Russian football for many years. Clashes inside stadiums and organised fights away from them are common. But this weekend's mass disturbances in Marseille have thrust Russian hooliganism into the international spotlight.

The Russian Football Union expressed regret over the fighting and Russia's sports minister described those involved as a disgrace. But other senior officials have praised the hooligans openly as "real men".

Meanwhile the fans themselves seem largely unrepentant, even proud.

"This showed who is the most important among hooligans," Alexei, a supporter of Moscow's CSKA football club who says he took part in the clashes, told me by phone from France.

He said Russian hooligans learned much of what they know from the English.

"In the 70s and 80s everyone would bow down before the English," Alexei says. "Now there are different hooligans. These are different times."

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Image source, AFP

Hashtags like #Marseilleisours appeared on Twitter after the clashes and Russian hooligan groups on social media praised participants.

English fans caught up in the violence have talked of the Russians as savage and say ordinary supporters - not fellow hooligans - were attacked. Russian fans themselves insist they were responding to provocation by the English.

But they do describe a new breed of Russian hooligan - younger, fitter and more sober than his English counterpart.

Image source, Getty Images/AP
Image caption,
French prosecutors said 150 Russian fans in Marseille were ready for "ultra-rapid, ultra-violent action"

"Now many people are boxers or into mixed martial arts, and Russian hooligans often follow a very healthy way of life, avoiding alcohol which used to be part of the subculture," explains journalist Andrei Malosolov, co-founder of Russia's Fans' Union.

Media caption,

A French prosecutor says there were around 150 Russian "hooligans" who travelled to Marseille "well-prepared for violence"

"The English like drinking more, and when they drink they lose quality as fighters and slow down. Our people were more prepared, because of the culture these days," he told the BBC, suggesting that the "students" have outgrown their masters.

"Russia and Poland are in top place in the hooligan chart," Andrei Malosolov says. "England has dropped a long way down."

The tabloid paper Komsomolskaya Pravda adopts a similar tone, suggesting that Russia is now clear favourite in what it called the "alternative Euros".

As such, it has published a glossary of hooligan terms for the uninitiated.

The hard-core are known simply as the "fighters", the paper explains, whilst the "Ultras" are the noisy fans behind the goal. Tactics range from a "jump" - striking a few blows then retreating - to a full "action"' aimed at the "moral destruction of the rival".

Video footage of the clashes is usually posted online.

Reports from France suggest that hooligans from multiple clubs were involved in the brawling in Marseille, including from towns little known outside Russia like Orel and Krasnodar. Fans say key members of the bigger hooligan firms, including two linked to Moscow teams CSKA and Spartak, were banned from travelling.

A recent "fans' law" introduced strict sanctions for violations including violence. The president of Russia's fans' union told the BBC that more than 100 hooligans had been blacklisted as a result.

But many of those who did travel, fought with their faces uncovered - apparently unconcerned about repercussions.

Both Russia and England face penalties from Uefa if the violence continues. The ultimate punishment - disqualification - would be devastating for Russia which hosts the World Cup in 2018.

But for now, the mood here is defiant.

"The lads defended the honour of their country," Russian media quoted MP Igor Lebedev, who is also on the executive committee of the Football Union.

The spokesman for Russia's powerful Investigative Committee went even further.

"A normal man, as he should be, surprises them," tweeted Vladimir Markin, referring to European outrage at Russian hooligans. "They're used to seeing 'men' at gay parades," he concluded.

So the fans' own reaction is hardly surprising.

"Of course we are worried about the team, that's the main thing," Alexei told the BBC from France, insisting that there would be no more trouble among the fans without "provocation".

He claimed that the clashes at the end of Saturday's match were sparked by a barrage of abuse from England fans.

"Maybe it was wrong what we did," Alexei admitted. "But if people shout insults, they have to be ready to pay for that."