Britain’s most senior football police officer has warned England fans travelling to the World Cup they are in danger of being subjected to an “extreme level of violence” at the hands of Russian hooligans.
Supporters are celebrating reaching next summer’s tournament following Thursday’s 1-0 win over Slovenia, with up to 20,000 expected to attend next summer’s finals.
But deputy chief constable Mark Roberts, the National Police Chiefs’ Council national football policing lead who co-ordinated Britain’s policing operation at Euro 2016 and will do so again at the World Cup, told Telegraph Sport there were “risks” in doing so, warning:
- Russian hooligans pose a genuine threat to visiting fans, despite a crackdown on football violence by the country’s authorities.
- Any mass invasion by England supporters of Russia’s public squares could be met with a “firm” response from local police.
- Fans should expect to serve time in a Russian prison if they engage in the kind of rioting which almost got both countries kicked out of last year's Euros.
England supporters were specifically targeted by hammer and iron bar-wielding Russian hooligans ahead of the countries’ Euro 2016 opener in Marseille last year, which left two men in comas fighting for their lives.
UK Government officials feared the attacks were state-sanctioned after a senior Russian parliamentarian posted on Twitter: “Well done lads, keep it up!”, and president Vladimir Putin joked: “I don’t know how 200 fans could hurt several thousand Englishmen.”
There has been a crackdown on hooliganism in the country since then, with some of those involved in the Marseille attack issued with banning orders, but a chilling documentary in February revealed how thugs were planning another ambush of England supporters next summer.
Roberts said: “There are risks, because if you look back to what happened in Marseille, there were Russian supporters there intent on causing significant disorder and causing significant injury.
“You only have to go on YouTube to see that there is an active hooligan issue in Russia and it generally operates at a pretty extreme level of violence. There clearly is a potential issue.
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“The balance to that then is, ‘Do we think the Russian police are going to treat it seriously? Is there a commitment from Russian state to treat it seriously?’ And I think, everything I’ve seen, the reassurance is there.”
Roberts said a decision had yet to be taken whether travelling supporters would be advised not to don England shirts during the World Cup after Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur all told their followers to avoid club colours during recent trips to Moscow.
But he urged England fans to help themselves by avoiding antagonising the Russian people and police.
He said: “We know how England fans can behave - or an element of England fans can behave - when they go abroad: take over a square, put the flags out, sing songs; generally start at the lower end in terms of content but, as drink kicks in, we hear some pretty offensive stuff.
“You’ll see with England fans - not just following the national team but sometimes with the clubs in Europe - they’ll play a Spanish team so they’ll sing songs about Gibraltar; they’ll play in Dortmund, so they’ll sing songs about the Second World War; they’ll play a French team, so they’ll sing songs about Brexit and the European Union.
“There is this tendency to almost find the button to press, depending on where they are.
“My view would be if they try to engage in that sort of behaviour in Russia, they will meet a pretty firm policing response. They need to be careful about where they drape flags etc. because there are massive sensitivities.
“And in the same way that the French found some of the drunken behaviour pretty offensive, I think there is an onus on supporters to go and be good ambassadors.
“By all means, have a good time - you can show England supporters to be the best of them - but there is a degree of responsibility when you go to a foreign country and a foreign culture to act in a way that wins you friends with the hosts instead of alienating the hosts.
“Russia is a pretty rugged society in many ways in terms of how they deal with things. And just because England fans travel abroad, you can’t expect everybody, suddenly, to adopt a British policing style, to have a degree of tolerance about things, to - and it’s a word I hate - write off sometimes pretty offensive chanting as ‘banter’.”
Roberts said police were projecting between 10,000-20,000 England fans would travel to Russia, a fraction of those who went to France last summer, which received an estimated 500,000 visits from British supporters.
He also sought to assure Russian authorities that known English hooligans would not be allowed to leave the country under the Government’s banning-order scheme.
He said he expected a less “indiscriminate” police response to any trouble than occurred at the Euros, at which tear gas was controversially used to disperse brawling fans.
But he added: “If anyone’s intent on actual violence or disorder, I think they’ll get a pretty robust response.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty harsh regime and I wouldn’t have thought you’d want to be in prison with the label of ‘English football hooligan’ in Russia.”
The FA declined to comment on Roberts’ warnings but it has previously declared fan safety to be its “number one priority” and condemned the Marseille riots after they occurred.
It has also finally adopted a zero-tolerance approach to supporters who engage in sick chanting, banning a number of members of the England Supporters Travel Club following March’s friendly with Germany.