Reda Maher

Brazil 360: The Russia fans obsessed with an English hooligan culture that no longer exists

Reda Maher

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Zenit St Petersburg 'ultras' mingling with the English in Rio de Janeiro

"I was so surprised in 2007, when England came to Moscow," a Russia fan told me outside an expensive bar-restaurant in Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema district.

"My firm had been training for group combat for months, preparing for the biggest fight of our lives, but the English didn’t want to fight. We’d been brought up thinking they were the best hooligans in the world, and we found out they were not interested."

The man’s name is Misha, and he is a 32-year-old Zenit St Petersburg fan who describes himself as a “retired” football hooligan.

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"I didn’t actually make it to Moscow for that match – I had my university exams. My life was changing and I was less interested in fighting. Now I don’t want to fight at all.

"But I still love the English football 'casual' culture," he added, pointing to the logo on his Fred Perry shirt.

"Stone Island, Burberry, Fred Perry, they're all my favourite brands. When I was a teenager I bought my first Fred Perry shirt, second-hand because I was too poor to buy a new one. Now I can afford to buy what I want."

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Misha wished to hide his identity as he is no longer involved in violence

Misha explained why he and his fellow Zenit fans became so obsessed with British hooliganism – and you may find the reason surprising.

"I went to my first away game when I was 16. And Dougie Brimson had started writing his books about English hooligans.

"I read a lot, and read all his books, all the time. I became obsessed, and so did my friends. We wanted to be just like the Chelsea Headhunters. We travelled to matches, we fought, we won, we lost. We wore the same clothes as the English, we acted like them.

"But I finally realised that the fighting was pointless. Now I have a young son, and I like making friends with other fans, not attacking them."

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Zenit ultras in a show of strength last season

Misha's club, Zenit, has a notorious problem with hooliganism, and racism. Misha did not appear to be particularly nationalist though: later, he said that "Crimea is Russian culturally, and (separation from Ukraine) was going to happen in the end, but [Vladimir] Putin did it all wrong. It should have been peaceful.

"We want peace around the world. But if someone starts a war, I will come out of my 'retirement' and fight, against all my goodwill."

Of course, not all Zenit fans have been involved in violence. Indeed, Misha's friend Alexander spoke eloquently about what drew him to football.

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"I love the aesthetic of the game, both on and off the pitch. I used to design the big banners that our fans would hold. I have never been interested in violence, or being in a firm. It was never my thing, but the fashion was."

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He too felt Russia had mishandled the Crimea situation, although said that matters were not helped by nationalists on the other side, pointing to attempts to remove Russian as an official language.

"It is possible to have two official languages because of a previous occupation or union, like in Finland (where Swedish is also counted alongside Finnish). To try and suppress Russian language just provoked people.

"But Russia has gone about it all wrong. Ukrainians are our brothers and sisters, and the way we’ve acted makes us look bad to the world.

"I travel a lot and our image is poor abroad. This national image is not relevant to real life, but we should work more on it.

"I believe in the future of my country, I see it like this: we had a democratic revolution in 90s; then we had oligarch capitalism, which is mafia style; now we have government capitalism which will end in the mid term, because it gives no progress to the human being; and afterwards we will have competitive capitalism.

"It is the natural progression and we have the basis for it already."

Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup - follow him on Twitter @Reda_Maher_LDN
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