I honestly thought I was dreaming as I followed the events on Friday night. I was on the overnight train back to Voronezh, still suffering from a wee bit of a fever, and honestly believed that I was watching an amazingly bad action movie from the 1980s.
The idiots who turned up to put on a show of “Slavic” force on Friday night in Podgorica, made a mockery of what sport should be. From inappropriate chants to throwing flares, knives, coins and stones, what should have been a straightforward international match between two not-unfriendly nations, turned into an inferno.
It was lights out on the Moscow-Voronezh train when the match kicked off. Despite a raucous build up in Montenegro with masses of riot police on hand, the home crowd were politely silent for the Russian National Anthem, which added to the bad dream. Then within a minute of the start the commentator gasped, Akinfeev was on the ground “in serious trouble”.
It transpired that he had been hit with a flare thrown by a local, a local who on Sunday turned himself into the police and apologised profusely. With the Russian keeper whisked off to hospital the German referee stopped the match for over half an hour. I dozed slightly and awoke with 20 minutes gone in the first half. I double checked the line up to be sure I hadn’t dreamt the incident.
Russia dominated the game and played their best football for a long time. And at half time it looked like there would be only one winner. During the half-time break (I have this on a report from a Russian journo who was in the stadium), Russian fans were pelted with missiles as they stood smoking.
Returning to the stand they then faced police who herded them as far away from rioting home fans as possible. One of the energetic Montenegrins managed to thrown a plastic seat across the divide. We were informed that the match would be delayed. I say energetic as regionally the locals are famed for their lack of dynamism. When they voted to become independent it was joked that it took a year before the government decided to inform the nation.
I woke again with the second half 5 minutes old and Russia attacking on the pitch. The cameraman picked up objects lying on the ground near the sideline which had been thrown at players, a plastic bottle, some stones, a 50 cent euro coin and a piece of metal. Russia were awarded a penalty shortly after another near miss on goal and Roman Shirokov was denied by the home keeper.
The commentator was still reeling from this when the German referee began to have words with a Russian player, who was struck by an object. Suddenly all hell broke loose between the two sets of players with benches clearing and a right old schmoozle breaking out. And with that the players all left the pitch.
I admit that it was pretty hard to fall back asleep and seeing as it was already well after midnight, I spent a couple of hours trying to find information on what was happening. Rightfully the Montenegrin coach Branko Nrnović came out and slammed the fans for their behaviour. Capello correctly said the match should have been abandoned in the first minute and nobody in their right mind has tried to suggest that this is anything other than idiotic thuggery.
I have always been against flares in stadia, especially after seeing how foolish and dangerous they can be during my time in Croatia. If fans wish to show their support, they can sing and cheer, however the “look at me” culture that grows with ever-increasing TV and Internet coverage has multiplied the chances of such incidents.
That geo-political events of the last 12 months were at play is a small fact, though it takes very little for fans in Eastern Europe, especially ex-Yugoslavia to behave in such a way, as they do far worse regularly at domestic matches.
When working with Hajduk Split I brought to the attention of our head of security drugs being sold at the entrances to some of the walkways into the stadium, all within sight of the ticket checkers and security personnel. For two home games it stopped, until money found its way into the pockets of those responsible and off they went again. In ten years nothing has changed.
When the Serbia-Albania match descended into a riot, or when Croatian fans covered the Milan pitch in flares last November, much was spoken about change, responsibility, but nothing was done. It was said this weekend, as many times in the past, “It’ll take somebody getting seriously hurt….”. The usual guff from the usual sources.
So what can be done? Throw Montenegro out of the qualifiers? Ban their fans from attending? Play matches behind closed doors? Go back to socialism?
The latter was an excuse used by a Russian commentator – who claimed that it was never like this in the USSR and Yugoslavia. Since he is in his 60’s he would know that it was always thus, only less regular and reported. Right now it looks like Russia will get a handy three points, but both teams and football lose out.