Moscow, Russia – On a Saturday evening, thousands of football fans in red and white scarves streamed to the Otkritie Arena stadium in Moscow amid heavy police presence. FC Spartak Moskva was to play its first match after a two-week break in March.
Spartak, which is vying for the Russian Premier League trophy, was to host Tosno, a small football club from the Leningrad region. At kickoff time, sector B of the stadium, where Spartak’s notorious ultras traditionally stand, was unusually quiet.
“We’ve decided the first half to be quiet in memory of the Kemerovo victims,” said one fan in sector B, who did not give his name. A week earlier, a shopping centre had burned down in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, killing 64 people, including more than 40 children.
During the second half, the ultras resumed their usual chants accompanied by three drums, but even they were toned down. Tosno is not considered a major rival team, and the match was not as exciting as a derby, fans said. But there was also another reason for the relative calm: Some Spartak hooligans now have to keep a low profile.
“People try to behave now,” said another fan, who also did not give his name. “These days you can get a ban for the smallest thing, for smoking a cigarette at the stadium.”
Although sector B fans were reluctant to speak to journalists, those who did talk to Al Jazeera at the match said many were under pressure from security agencies ahead of the World Cup. They are being watched and occasionally harassed, they said.
“I’m covering my face so police don’t see me. They have cameras, they watch,” said one sector B fan wearing a black scarf across his mouth and nose who said his name was Igor. He and his two friends, who gave their names as Artem and Gari, said some fans are afraid of turning up on a blacklist and being banned from attending World Cup matches. One of their friends is already on that list, they said.
But Spartak ultras, who have been involved in violent incidents at home and abroad, are not the only ones who have felt increasing pressure from the Russian security apparatus. Hardcore fans of other Moscow teams who Al Jazeera spoke to, also said that the police and FSB have intensified scrutiny and harassment of fan organisations and hooligan groups, particularly after violent clashes during the 2016 European Championship in which Russian fans were involved.
World Cup blacklists
In June 2016, during a Russia-England Euro 2016 match in the French city of Marseille, violence erupted between English and Russian fans, resulting in dozens being injured and arrested. After the incident, Russia’s national team was handed a disqualification warning. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the clashes an “absolute disgrace” and said Russian authorities would work with fan organisations on “discipline among fans”, while the head of the Russian Football Union (RFS) and current sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, called it a “set-up” and “disrespect” against the RFS.
Russian ultras told Al Jazeera that pressure on them intensified after Euro 2016. Since then, security agencies have responded to violent incidents at home and abroad with more severity and have put ultras under surveillance.
It was after the Euro 2016 that Alexander Shprygin, head of the All-Russia Union of Supporters (VOB) and an FC Dinamo Moskva ultra, was arrested twice by the police and his home and office were searched. Shprygin, who used to participate in organising meetings for the World Cup and was seen to be favoured by Mutko in the past, had to suspend VOB activities. In September 2016, the Russian Football Union dissolved VOB’s membership and called on Russian football fans to form another association.
Shprygin, who was deported twice from France after the Marseille incident, was accused of being linked to the clashes in Marseille and of being an organiser of a massive fight between football hooligans in Moscow in January 2016. He denies both accusations.
Shprygin told Al Jazeera that after his two arrests in 2016, the police stopped bothering him, but last year, during the Confederations Cup in Russia, he had his fan ID revoked just before the Russia-New Zealand match he was going to attend. The fan ID is a document issued for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup which grants a ticket holder access to the stadium.
Shprygin said he received an email just before the game telling him that his fan ID had been cancelled. Other ultras also faced cancellations, including Vasily “Killer” Stepanov, a famous Spartak hooligan who is known for his pro-Kremlin political views. Shprygin said he was afraid the same could happen for him at the World Cup.
The Russian interior ministry has kept a blacklist of people who are banned from attending sports events since July 2016. The list is published regularly online, and, as of April 6, had the names of 454 men on it, most under the age of 35. Neither Shprygin nor Stepanov was on that list.
But according to Shprygin, there is an alternative roster that the interior ministry has not publicly released, which contains the names of at least 1000 football fans. It is for fear of that list that some football hooligans have tried to keep а low profile, he said.
Shprygin himself was perceived to enjoy political backing in the past. Apart from being favoured by Mutko, he was also known to be a member of the ultra-nationalist LDPR party and an aide to Igor Lebedev, the deputy chairman of the State Duma and member of the same party. He has also attended meetings and has been photographed with Putin.
But Mutko appears to have withdrawn his support for football fan leaders and according to Russian sports journalist Maksim Allanazarov, Shprygin and Lebedev no longer publicise their relаtions either.
“Currently the authorities don’t have an interest in cosying up to [football] fans. For that reason no one would support them openly. And ahead of the World Cup this is absolutely normal,” he said.
Home searches, arrests, trials
Beyond the threat of being blacklisted, in the past year and a half, Russian ultras have also faced detentions and court cases.
“The police are very actively watching football fans, and all violations on the stadium are noted,” Shprygin told Al Jazeera. “While before, once you leave the stadium, you could forget about what happened there, now they’d come to your home, they’d find you, they’d search your house, they’d call you for a ‘talk’.”
While, before the Marseille clashes, some violations at football matches would not be taken so seriously by the security agencies, in the summer of 2016, they started arresting members of football organisations, even over their involvement in incidents of the past.
In July 2016, the homes of dozens of FC Zenit ultras were searched, and a number of them were detained in connection with an attack on members of a football youth academy in September 2015.
In June 2017, five Lokomotiv Moskva fans were put on trial over racist chants. They were accused of calling for “extremist actions” after their ultras’ group chanted “Kill the Albanian!” at a Lokomotiv-Skenderbeu (Albania) match in 2015. The defendants were not arrested until late 2016.
The police also started cracking down on less severe violations. In the fall of 2016, a court case was opened against Spartak and CSKA fans over the use of fireworks and derogatory chants. FSB and officers from the anti-extremism centre “E” carried out searches and arrests of football fans from both teams.
According to a Lokomotiv Moskva fan, who asked not to be named, “repressive” measures have also been taken against teams outside Moscow and St Petersburg.
He said the police pressured fans of FC Kaluga, a lower-division team based in the city of Kaluga, 180 km south of Moscow, to the point where some stopped going to matches. In July 2017, a fan organisation called FC Kaluga Support released a statement on social media, saying that they were freezing activity because of “repression by law enforcement agencies”.
In November 2016, security agencies also searched more than 20 homes of members of the “Fiery Force” fan group, who support lower-division FC Fakel in the city of Voronezh. The officers confiscated “extremist” literature and weapons, and arrested their leaders. The move came after a fight between Fakel and Dinamo Moskva fans. After the incident, harassment of Fakel fans continued. There was even a case in which a whole group of fans were arrested on their way to a derby match, the Lokomotiv fan said.
In April 2017, 29-year-old Evgeny Gavrilov, leader of a fan organisation called TOYS supporting FC Krylia Sovetov in the city of Samara, was put on trial for organising an “extremist group”.
Russian fan movements have been known for far-right and “extremist” views and violent attacks on migrants. In the past, hardcore football fans used to attend the “Russian March” – an annual event organised by far-right groups in Moscow and other cities.
But according to the Lokomotiv fan, who himself has leftist political views, after the events in Ukraine in 2014, the presence of the far right in stadiums across Russia started to decrease. That coincided with a crackdown by the security agencies on far-right political groups. TOYS, however, was the first football fan organisation to be declared “extremist” by a Russian court.
As a result of these measures, some ultras have decided to stop going to matches. According to a member of the FC Torpedo fan movement – a smaller Moscow-based team – some hardcore fans have stopped attending Russian tournament matches because of the “special attention” they were getting from the police.
“There is a big number of fans still going to games. But there is one particular group [of hooligans] who are fewer in number at matches,” the 24-year-old who asked to be identified only as Alexei told Al Jazeera.
Russian hooligans going abroad to fight
Despite the growing pressure against them, not all football hooligans have given up their violent ways. According to Shprygin, some have started going abroad to be able to get into fights.
“Russian fans go to have fights abroad because in Russia it’s become more difficult to do so,” he told Al Jazeera.
In March, Spartak fans clashed with FC Athletico Bilbao fans after a Europa League match in Bilbao, Spain. Two people were injured and nine arrested.
In February, Spartak ultras headed to Greece to face off with FC Dinamo Kiev fans, who were supposed to attend a match between their team and Athens-based FC AEK.
In November 2017, Maksim “Tuk” Seryogin, a notorious Spartak hooligan, showed up with a few associates to a match between CSKA Sofia and Lokomotiv Plovdiv in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. According to local media, after Seryogin’s provocations, CSKA ultras broke the security fence and clashed with their Lokomotiv peers on the pitch. Seryogin was beaten up by CSKA fans and later detained by the police for 10 days. Footage of the fighting later showed up in a video published on Seryogin’s Youtube channel.
But not all plans to go abroad have been successful. According to Shprygin, earlier this year, security agencies found out about a Spartak hooligans’ plan to go to France and fight with CSKA ultras during a UEFA Europa League match. They “visited” the hooligans and warned them against heading to France, he said. The Russian interior ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.
According to Allanazarov, the security measures the Russian authorities are taking will prevent any violent incident from happening during the World Cup. “The police would respond with severity to even the slightest threat of disturbances,” he said.
All the football fans who Al Jazeera spoke to, also said that despite fears and media reports about the threat of violence, there won’t be major violent incidents.
“Some think there will be reprisals for France and Poland, but there won’t be,” Alexei, the Torpedo fan said, referring to the European Championships in the two countries (Russian fans were also involved in clashes at the Euro 2012).
After the World Cup, the security agencies would calm down and “things would go back to normal,” he said.
But according to sports journalist Allanazarov, tough security measures at football matches in Russia are here to stay.
Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova
Check out the latest podcast Game of Our Lives from Al Jazeera’s podcast studio, Jetty.