THEY TRAIN FOR TROUBLE IN GYMS AND RUN PRACTICE FIGHTS IN FORESTS
AONE-HORSE town near Rus si a’ s remote border with Latvia is an improbable refuge for the man seen as responsible for the attacks on England supporters in Marseille last summer which left one of them with life- affecting brain damage.
Velikiye Luki was taken by the Germans on their march to Moscow in the Second World War and almost totally destroyed in the siege in which the Russians reclaimed it. The careworn memorials to the dead are part of the solemnity. When the night train out of St Petersburg has deposited you here at daybreak, you find no place open for three hours.
Alexander Shprygin materialises here at lunchtime, heading down Lenina Prospekt in his Prada shades, nursing bitter indignation. He is a physically intimidating individual, perhaps 15 stone, although it seems inadvisable to ask.
His nickname is ‘ Comanche’ (a Native American tribe) and he is brandishing his 8,000 rouble (£105) ticket, which the authorities effectively cancelled as he drove to Russia’s opening Confederations Cup match with New Zealand. Shprygin says he was 200km south of St Petersburg when his mobile phone, propped on the dashboard, showed the email revealing his ‘fan ID’ had been annulled. Around 50 supporters received the same communication.
‘What p****s me off is the wait,’ says Shprygin, through our translator, as he shovels three spoonfuls of sugar into a small coffee. ‘Why did they wait until now to ban me and the others? It’s so people don’t have time to resist.’
He talks about a ‘legal challenge’, with the air of a man who once stood at the heart of Russia’s football establishment, photographed with President Vladimir Putin and assistant to Igor Lebedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s parliament. That was when football fans were considered politically valuable and the All-Russian Fans Association [ARFA] Shprygin founded in 2007 was given a seat on the Russian FA’s board. For the 2016 European Championship, the Russian state paid for an official ARFA charter flight from Moscow to Marseille and on board were many of those later involved in running battles with England fans. Two ARFA board members were jailed in France for their part in the violence. Shprygin was twice expelled from France, returning undetected when first deposited outside its boundaries. The Russian state have cut him and his organisation loose.
Though he articulates the bizarre fascination English hooligans seem to hold for Russia’s extremists, this one-time football establishment apparatchik has no compunction about saying the English had it coming, when 200 Russian mixed martial arts obsessives showed up in the city’s old port last June.
‘If you are playing Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, no one cares,’ he says. ‘When an English team play in Europe, there are thousands and thousands of fans,’ he says. ‘They have no allies in Europe and are ready to fight anyone. For us it is like a derby — Manchester United v Manchester City, Liverpool v Everton. We heard that every hour there was a flight from Manchester to Marseille,’ he says. ‘We were strong enough as a fan community to bring 10,000. They bring 150,000.’
Those who attacked the English fans will tell you that these numbers are an irrelevance. The reprisals were dished out by gym-trained fighters, loosely affiliated to Russian football clubs, who had prepared in gyms, weights rooms and forests. They belong to a Russian sub-culture who say it is ‘ sport’ called okolofutbol [outside of football].
One fighter, a member of a Dynamo Moscow ‘ crew’, tells
Sportsmail there had been no plan for a co-ordinated attack on the English in Marseille until regular Russian fans were taunted. ‘They were singing making jokes about how Russia sucks and ‘Putin is a w*****’,’ he says, through our translator. ‘We are not fans of Putin, but still... and that was when the crew guys came. The leaders of different crews said ‘let’s work together.’ There was a tactical approach: big guys at the centre of the pack, tougher ones in the middle, smaller at the side.’
HE portrays okolofutbol as having rules and codes of honour, including raising arms to indicate ‘clean hands’ — no weapons, signet rings or knuckle dusters. Yet 52-year-old Andrew Bache, the most seriously injured Englishman, was hit over the head with a bar. ‘There was what we call ‘s*** rain’ – weapons being thrown at us,’ says the fighter. ‘ They said ‘OK, the clean hands rule does not work.’
This sub-culture’s roots lie in the post-Soviet emergence of fitness fanaticism and fighting among a strata of Russian males, 15 years ago. ‘There was a nostalgia among some about the “good, old city street fights”, when scouts would comb the city for someone to rival a strong fighter,’ says photographer Michail Domozhikov, who has gained access to okolo groups.
Some groups train and fight each other in forests, where they will go undetected. Most have football club affiliations: CSKA Moscow’s ‘Yaroslavka’, for example, and Zenit St Petersburg’s ‘ Music Hall.’ The evidence is on YouTube. ‘Music Hall’ meet a Frankfurt group on what looks like waste ground, for a fight illuminated by car headlamps. Several red-shirted German fighters lie motionless on the floor at the end. This activity is prevalent in Balkan countries, the Czech Republic and in Poland — the country perceived as ‘second’ to Russia.
Other groups have included Dynamo Moscow’s ‘Capital’ and CSKA Moscow’s ‘ Clockwork Oranges’. Also known as ‘Russianstyle’ fighting it was romanticised in a 2013 film, Okolofutbola, though
okolo participants are thought to have hated the picture.
The intensity of the fights, between participants who are meticulously selected, mean they generally last no more than two minutes, with judges deciding the outcome if there is no obvious winner. ‘If a fighter is down, it is the practice to kick him several times but any more and you are removed,’ says the Dynamo crew member.
Shprygin does not seem to have any desire to remove these groups from football and he clearly supports retaliation. ‘Of course if I was in a group and English fans fought me, I would fight back. But if supporters said, “let’s go and do some English fans” I would say no.’
His views on the racial make-up of the Russia team also contradict the claims of World Cup head Vitaly Mutko last week that there is no racism problem, 12 months before they host the World Cup. Shprygin is unrepentant about tweeting that there was ‘something wrong’ with a team photo posted on Twitter by France player Mathieu Valbuena because it contained ‘very many’ black faces.
‘In France they are OK with that but I don’t really get why an African guy can be a French guy,’ he says. ‘For Russia, I don’t think it’s good. I bet you we could walk around here until dusk and not see an African guy and it shows [that having one in the national team] would not be natural.’
Opinions are divided about whether there will be trouble next summer. Shprygin says Russian fans fear the jail terms troublemakers will face. ‘The Russian special police will disperse big England crowds,’ says the crew member. ‘But of course some clashes are inevitable.’
Shprygin will struggle to play a part. He is out of work, holed up at a family villa an hour out of town, yet seems to feel a heroism in taking the blame for Marseille. ‘If a police officer takes a bribe, the head of the police is fired,’ he says before leaving. ‘I am like a general who takes responsibility for the actions of my officers.’
Flashpoint: a chair flies as Russians attack English fans in Marseille