The violence between followers of Spartak Moscow and Athletic Bilbao on February 22 revived fears that hooliganism could mar the first World Cup hosted by Russia.
It also echoed a brutal attack by muscle-bound Russians on English fans before the start of a Euro 2016 match in the French port city of Marseille that shocked the sporting world.
The Marseille mayhem left 35 people injured — three of them seriously — and saw the Russians involved proclaim themselves champions of the thug world.
These are not the bragging rights World Cup organisers are proud of — and ones Moscow’s CSKA and Lokomotiv will want to shed on Thursday.
CSKA will host French side Lyon while Lokomotiv travel away to Atletico Madrid for last 16 Europa League matches at which Russian fans’ behaviour may be as important as the result.
– ‘Safe in Moscow’ –
The return of Russian supporters to Spain for Lokomotiv’s encounter against the red half of Madrid is being watched especially closely.
The Russian Premier League leaders’ president Ilya Gerkus took pains to condemn the violence in Bilbao in which a policeman later died of a heart attack and insisted that Lokomotiv supporters were much better mannered.
“What happened in Spain is horrible,” Gerkus told the TASS news agency. “But I am confident that our fans are not like those who did all that.”
CSKA spokesman Sergei Aksyonov agreed that any French concern about flying to Moscow was unwarranted.
“Our team have hosted a number of Champions League and Europa League matches in recent years,” Aksyonov told AFP.
“The visiting teams’ supporters always felt completely safe in Moscow.”
Russian football officials point to similar security fears arising before Liverpool and Manchester United Champions’ League games in Moscow against Spartak and CSKA in September.
Both matches passed off without incident despite the volatile possibility of the sides resuming their Marseille hostilities.
Spartak blames the Bilbao violence on a hostile press that stoked public fears of the Russians ahead of the match.
The Moscow team further accuses “Basque radical groups” of heeding those warning and pouncing on the Russians as they were approaching the stadium.
“We knew that we would not be welcomed in Bilbao,” Spartak deputy president Nail Iznmailov was quoted as saying by TASS.
The world football governing body FIFA also stuck by Russia the day after the incident.
“FIFA has complete trust in the security arrangements and comprehensive security concept developed by the Russian authorities and the Local Organising Committee,” a FIFA spokesperson told AFP.
“As demonstrated during the FIFA Confederations Cup last year, Russia’s already high security standards have been adapted to meet the specific needs of such major sporting events.”
Hooliganism experts say Russia’s powerful FSB security service has cracked down hard on football gangs and blacklisted many of their leaders ahead of the World Cup.
The Russian government’s official plan is to force both foreign and domestic supporters to undergo background checks before receiving a special FanID card required to attend World Cup matches.
A security source said Russian law enforcement agents were also working with their counterparts from England and other countries to determine which fans were safe.
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