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Violent Russian Soccer Fans Take Inspiration From England's 'Football Hooliganism'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The European soccer championships are being played in France right now, but events in the stands among fans are also making news. European soccer's governing body has given the Russian team a suspended disqualification and a fine of 150,000 euros for the behavior of dozens of Russian fans who've clashed with supporters of other teams. A number of Russian fans have also been arrested and deported from France.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who's based in Moscow. And he spent time with Russian fans. He's the author of "Football Dynamo: Modern Russia And The People's Game." He joins us over Skype from Moscow. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARC BENNETTS: No problem.

SIMON: Aren't the British the original soccer hooligans?

BENNETTS: Yeah, exactly. And the Russian fans rioting in France right now, for them the inspiration was the English football hooligan scene of the 1970s, '80s and '90s even. They see England as a spiritual home of football hooliganism, as it were.

SIMON: How does football hooliganism wind up being a source of inspiration?

BENNETTS: They are fanatical about football hooligamisn in the same way that some people are fanatical about fine wines or foreign languages or current affairs. So they took their inspiration from the birthplace of football hooliganism. They're dedicated to their art of ultraviolence. They don't drink. They don't smoke. They work out specifically for, like, these encounters, as they call them.

SIMON: Why do they want to be perpetrators of violence?

BENNETTS: They say it's a way proving themselves. It's just another form of contact sport, you know? They have a tradition called wall on wall, which was when residents from two areas would gather and walk towards each other. And the object of the game, as it were, was to take out your opponent - take them out as in knock them down or render them unconscious. And as one football hooligan said to me, like, football hooliganism was made in Russia, it's just an extension of this wall on wall pastime.

SIMON: How upset is the Russian government over what's been happening among Russian fans in France?

BENNETTS: Well, the Kremlin's condemned it. But then you've got some kind of fairly high-up politicians. For example, Igor Lebedev, who's the vice speaker of the Russian Parliament, he basically said I don't see anything wrong with it. Keep it up lads. You're doing a good job. Well, also, we've had some more senior figures even. I mean, we've had the head of the investigative committee, which is Russia's FBI - he said that Europeans were so shocked by the appearance of the Russian ultras because Europeans don't see men anymore. The only men they see are all at gay parades. That was his official statement.

SIMON: Mark Bennetts is the author of "Football Dynamo: Modern Russia And The People's Game." Thanks so much for being with us.

BENNETTS: Yeah, no problem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.