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On babies and bathwater

On babies and bathwater

James Appell on 2 December 2011

The RFU is threatening to introduce a Code of Honour to govern the behaviour of Russian football fans. James Appell wonders if it's really necessary...

On Sunday I witnessed Lokomotiv fans set fire to the away end in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, a blaze which eventually required the intervention of the fire service.

On Tuesday at the same location I saw CSKA fans attempt to throw flares at Lille goalkeeper Mickael Landreau as he stood in his penalty area.

Then the following day, as I watched on from the press box at St Petersburg’s Petrovsky Stadium, Zenit fans let off a smoke bomb during the first half of their side’s match against APOEL, forcing the referee to halt the match temporarily. Just in case we missed it the first time, half an hour later the fans let off a second, almost forcing the abandonment of the game.

Guess what: I survived. I’m alive to tell the tale. There isn’t even a scratch on me.

You may shrug, but if you’d been in Russia with me, and seen the looks of concern on the faces of friends and journalists (“why do you go to these games?”) you’d think I’d just visited a war-zone. If you’d been there to see angst-ridden TV debates among Russian journalists and commentators over what to do about the behaviour of the country’s football supporters (“Ban them!”, “Punish the clubs!”, and even - hilariously I thought - “Call in FIFA!”), you’d think the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were riding into town.

It used to be just my mother who worried about me visiting Russia’s stadiums. Now it’s Russians themselves. Things must be getting bad.

But they’re wrong on two counts. The first is that such stupidity is enough to put you off watching Russian football. Hardly. As a foreign, largely neutral observer, my primary concern is whether I am entertained. And, as the Russian Premier League enters its extended winter break - recommencing in the first week of March - it isn’t wild hyperbole to suggest that 2011 has been the most entertaining year in Russian football history.

Whether through investment, in the case of Anzhi, or merely through prudent choices of players and coaches, as is the example at Lokomotiv, Kuban and Dinamo, there are now conceivably eight sides from a league of sixteen teams who could mount a title charge.

That kind of competitiveness whets the appetite. And it has translated into some thrilling football matches. CSKA’s 5-3 win over Anzhi, back when the Army team were actually capable of such things (they have since fallen away badly, and coach Leonid Slutsky’s job looks close to being terminated); Lokomotiv’s 4-2 win over Zenit, on an emotional day in the wake of the plane crash which wiped out Yaroslavl’s hockey team; the 2-2 derby draw between CSKA and Spartak, played to a full house and featuring not just goals but an injury to Igor Akinfeev whose controversy continues to resonate.

Sport - good sport - is about unpredictability, and in this sense Russia knocks England into a cocked hat.

The second is the implicit assumption that the security and comfort we ‘enjoy’ - I use the word guardedly - in English stadiums is a far better option. Yes, there are plenty of things I prefer about going to the football in England than in Russia. The average Russian half-time snack - half-stale pies filled with potato, mushroom or cabbage - compares less favourably with England’s standard offerings (though Bovril plumbs depths which Russia can only dream of). The four security checks you have to go through to attend a match in Russia, including some gruff man in uniform repeatedly cupping your balls with a quizzical look on his face, is something else I’d much rather avoid.

But then again, I like the freedom on the terraces in Russia. I like that you can stand without stewards getting all hot under the collar. I like that you can bring banners into games and that the health-and-safety brigade are yet to enforce a ban on flares - though this is in the offing if, as the Russian Football Union (RFU) are threatening, a Code of Honour is introduced to govern the behaviour of Russia’s football fans. I even, to a degree, like that you can smoke in Russian stadiums, if only because, as a well-brought-up Englishman, it makes me feel just a little bit rebellious.

One lesson to be learned from English football in the last two decades is that cleansing football of these seemingly undesirable aspects creates unintended consequences. Narrowing the spectrum of ‘acceptable’ behaviour in football stadiums has led England down a road towards silence. We’re now surprised, enraptured - viz. Wednesday night’s match at White Hart Lane between Tottenham and PAOK - when travelling fans from the Continent turn up, ignore all of the rules we put in place and put on a real show. God forbid, in an attempt to prevent future acts of mindlessness, Russian football dispenses with both baby and bathwater.

In short, ask what you would prefer: a cauldron-like atmosphere, replete with rare instances of behaviour of the most crass stupidity at a match in Russia; or the tepid, risk-free, ‘sharp-edges-sanded-down-and-bubble-wrapped’ environment of an English stadium. Russians who suggest their league should be more like the English Premier League take note: be careful what you wish for.


James Appell is a respected member of ITV.com's football writing team and has a penchant for all things Eastern European.

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