Holding on to the ankles of two of his opponents, Alex, a 33-year-old member of a Moscow soccer hooligan group, felt the blows on his head but wouldn’t let go. The third man on top of him was battering his skull with both fists, but still Alex held on, hoping to buy his teammates, battling around him, breathing space. At last, the man rammed his elbow down into Alex’s face, shattering his eye socket. He let go.
And that last fight, nearly a year ago, had been a good one, Alex said in a recent interview. His side had won.
What had unnerved him was a new feeling: He realized it was getting harder to keep up.
When it first appeared in the 1990s, hooliganism in Russian soccer modeled itself heavily on the English version, adopting its clothes and terminology, including the term for its groups: firms. The Russians also embraced the English’s passion for blackout drinking and drunken brawling.
In fact, Russia’s hooligan scene has undergone a transformation. The new generation bears little resemblance to the beery bravado and off-balance punch-ups associated with traditional European hooliganism, or even the sometimes militialike violence of South American ultras.
Instead, the fans who have emerged in Russia over the past decade are obsessed with physical fitness, elite martial arts training and — at least while fighting — militant sobriety. Christened Okolofutbola, or “around football,” Russia’s hooligan scene has developed into perhaps Europe’s toughest, and just over a year before their country hosts soccer’s World Cup, the most hard-core Russian fans may be in the best fighting shape of their lives.
But while their prowess is not in doubt, fan monitors, soccer officials and even the hooligans themselves say there is virtually no chance the disorder that the Russian fans brought to last year’s European Championship in France will be repeated on home soil.
Instead, Russia’s hooligan groups are enduring an unprecedented crackdown by the authorities, who are determined that the World Cup will go smoothly.
“Believe me,” said Andrei Malosolov, a soccer journalist who helped found Russia’s national supporters club, “the years before the 2018 World Cup will be the quietest in the history of Russian soccer.”