Swathes of drugged-up muscle-bound thugs crushing skulls and raining death and violence on England fans. Racist, homophobic louts prowling the streets hunting victims. Cold, closed, unfriendly people fiercely rejecting outsiders. That was how Russia was supposed to be, right?
Covering Russia and its football as a foreigner resident in the country has been, to quote a colleague of mine, like “pissing against the wind”. The endless stream of bile directed towards the entire country based on minimal to no actual research has embittered many Russians themselves against the propaganda machine from the West.
Reports have varied wildly from accurate but imbalanced, to outright fabrications. One relatively recent red-top newspaper story showed pictures of body-builders tattooed from head to toe promising to ‘kill’ – despite them being Ukrainian and not even football fans.
The coverage from the other side has been equally disappointing. Well-known journalist Artur Petrosyan tweeted a picture of some ‘England fans’ hassling an old man who looked like Lenin and placing him in a bin. In fact, the men in the video were Russians dressed up in England kits – their accents and intonation were as convincing as a Phil Neville stepover – but it didn’t stop the clip being pushed as an example of how bad England fans have been.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Petrosyan’s tweet was his claim that it was the first instance of violence at the tournament, completely ignoring the Argentinian fans that attacked a Croatian fan after the 3-0 defeat.
Before launching into a blanket rejection of this mass of hatred whipped up by countless click-hungry media, some context is necessary. The relationship between two distant ideologies and nations cannot be summed up in a short feature, nor can it be viewed from one perspective. There are clear deficiencies on both sides of the media Cold War.
What of the actual fans themselves, though? Russian football following lacks a depth and connection that equivalent cultures enjoy, however much FIFA will try to convince you that football is this country’s number one sport. On Match TV, the free-to-air broadcaster showing half the games this summer, there was a flashy new show called ‘Footballing Country’, fronted by former Russian national team fringe player and full-time social media personality Evgeniy Savin.
Match TV itself is a reboot of tired, uninterested coverage of the game in Russia that has met with criticism from many for being too superficial, and this show is one prime exhibit detractors use. The truth is that the depth of emotional connection just isn’t there. Alexandr Ovechkin’s career-defining Stanley Cup win in the NHL this year was lauded in one sport that takes precedence – ice hockey – while winter biathlon often receives greater viewing figures.
The fervour surrounding Russia’s extraordinary over-achievement in their home tournament is at first glance then a touch perplexing. Apathy has surrounded Sbornaya, as Russia are known, for some time after a string of lifeless performances. Attendances in the top flight of Russian domestic football dropped below 10,000 per match for the first time last season. CSKA Moscow’s quarter final appearance in 2010’s Champions League remains the best performance of a Russian club in Europe.
Immediately before the tournament, head coach Stanislav Cherchesov was criticised for not including Igor Denisov – the finest defensive midfielder in Russia, one who had just won the league title with Lokomotiv Moscow – due to an argument the two had publicly held over team selection when both were at Dinamo Moscow. Denisov called Cherchesov ‘a clown’, a slight for which the former goalkeeper apparently still couldn’t forgive the combustible Denisov.
His sudden decision to drop the functional 3-5-2 formation was not universally popular, nor was his decision to instate ageing players such as Yuriy Zhirkov, Alexandr Samedov, and Sergey Ignashevich to the team. His insight has been largely vindicated, though, with Ignashevich one of Russia’s standout performers in a creaking back-line, while Samedov’s simple set-piece delivery a logical element to feed the hulking Artem Dzyuba.
It has been incredible to witness the suddenness of the public’s changing emotion. A few positive results doesn’t paper over the cracks that still run through Russia’s setup, but the fact that Cherchesov was able to eke any measure of resilience out of a very limited group bodes well for the inevitable restructuring that he will oversee. Electric talents like the Miranchuk twins barely managed any game time, so there is more exciting talent to come through still.
While in Nizhny Novgorod ahead of Croatia’s dull encounter with Denmark, I strolled into a popular bar to watch the game expecting nothing more than to enjoy 90 minutes of football. As I walked in, a young girl heard me speak English, and was moved to offer me her little statue of Zabivaka, the tournament mascot. Her intrigue into a foreigner being in her country, and her instinct to offer a gift, was a perfect microcosm of the intrinsic nature of Russian people.
Every single match has seen fans of all nations mingling, but most of all of Russians talking to foreigners, exchanging selfies, scarves, and mementos, and spreading the ubiquitous chant of ‘Ro-si-ya!’ wherever they go. England fans belted it out in Samara after their quarter-final win over Sweden – the same two groups of fans that were supposedly hell bent on destroying each other.
After living here for the best part of a decade and being married into a Russian family, the country is close to my heart. I knew the Russian people would be fantastic hosts, and that visitors would be taken aback by the warmth of their welcome. To witness it first hand, however, has been on another level. The real work of developing progressive social change continues in earnest, kickstarted magnificently by the tournament nobody expected to flourish.