PARIS — Don't be fooled by the wacky names like "Music Hall," ''Happy Guys" or "Aliens", highly-trained Russian hooligan groups are as nasty as they come and tune up for ultra-violence on a regular diet of pre-arranged fights throughout their domestic season and — whenever they can — in Europe.
Viciousness and organization are the hallmarks of these "firms", who have put aside their domestic rivalries at the European Championship. With the exception of Polish hooligans, they are the most consistently violent around. Last weekend, Marseille's southern seaport was turned into a battle ground, as they launched coordinated attacks against English supporters in the old port area before and after Saturday's European Championship match.
They were "like grasshoppers that destroy everything and leave," Bruno Trani, who represents the CRS riot police in the Marseille region for the Alliance police union, said in a phone interview with The Associated Press, estimating their numbers at up to 250.
"When you see a compact group moving together, slam into a group of English people and then move away again in a group you can tell that they are organized," Trani added. "(They) left no chance to the English who were drunk andtired by alcohol and the sun."
This week all eyes will be on chillier northern France, but it remains to be seen whether tensions have cooled.
Russia plays Slovakia in Lille on Wednesday, and England faces Wales the next day in Lens in cities just 30 kilometers (20 miles) apart — raising the prospect of more clashes. Trains from England stop in Lille.
What also stood out during last weekend's melees was the differing fighting styles, revealing the degree to which the Russian hooligans prepare.
While the loose-shirted or topless Brits swung loose haymakers, Russians advanced swiftly with their fists raised up, bobbing up and down in a protective style often used in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting. Highly athletic and physically toned, they are a far cry from the red-faced, beer-bellied English hooligans once running the show abroad in the 1970s and 80s.
"They were there to smash the British," Dominique Mesquida, who represents the CRS in the Marseille region for the Unite SGP Police-FO union, told AP in a phone interview, speaking of how the Russians operated "in small, compact and very mobile groups" and had knuckledusters.
"They were equipped" Mesquida said. "(They) knew what they were going to do."
Mesquida said the CRS were told the match was high risk but hadn't been specifically warned to watch out for Russian thugs.
Russian football has long been awash with violence, however.
Zenit St. Petersburg's "Music Hall" and "Vesyolye Rebyata" — the name of a a 1930s musical and Soviet music band from the 1960s that translates as Happy Guys — would normally take on Spartak Moscow's "Aliens" or "Gladiators" in a remote Russian field. These filmed pre-arranged fights with even numbers are then posted online. Taking a heavy beating is often preferable to running away and losing reputation.
Usually, Spartak or Lokomotiv Moscow would be trying to take the scalp of city rival CSKA — kingpins of Russia's hooligan world along with Zenit, for whom "Music Hall" are one of their several firms. When Zenit confronted Spartak on a car park 11 years ago — in the early days of filmed fights — 250 were on each side.
On the European scene, Zenit are very active. One night, they arranged a meeting with hooligan counterparts from German side Eintracht Frankfurt.
With car lights illuminating a somber field, a slow and chilling chant of "MU-SIC HALL, MU-SIC HALL, MU-SIC HALL" fills the air. Sounding like they are marching into battle, they then overwhelm Frankfurt's Brigade Nassau firm within two minutes in a blur of precision kicks and punches.
Combining their considerable forces, Russian groups caused carnage in Marseille, scenes unprecedented in European football since English hooligans fought with locals in the same city during the 1998 World Cup.
It also seemed like a hooligan's holiday for the Russians. Some had T-shirts with "Lokomotiv" on them; others had "Zenit on Tour" on theirs, while one group all had the same black t-shirts on like a regiment. There were banners and stickers from smaller crews such as Arsenal Tula and one from the city of Kaluga. A kaleidoscope of violent people uniting like Hell's Angels chapters all riding down the same road together to cause mayhem somewhere.
Such was the sheer brutality that even strict Russian codes of hooligan combat were broken.
Back in December, hooligans groups drew up a charter called "Hooligans in Russia with new code(s)" — stipulating the rules to be obeyed without exception.
Among the main points, translated into loose English, were:
- "You start fight only with other hooligan group" — so no attacking non-consenting fans.
- "During Russian national team matches, all groups must be united, without fighting each other." Clearly obeyed.
- "(Person) on the ground must not be attacked! You can attack him only if he is able to continue the fight." Clearly not obeyed.
During a particularly nasty fight in Marseille, a dozen Russians approach a similar number of English. Chairs and bottles are thrown and then the hand-to-hand fighting begins. The combat seems roughly even at first, but then all of the English back off at once, as if collectively overawed.
Except for one man.
Wearing a bright red shirt, somewhat portly in shape and appearing to be in his 40s, he stands and trades punches with two Russians before going to ground.
But rather than leaving him, two other Russians come across and simultaneously aim hard kicks to each side of his head, sending him slumping forward onto his face. In another incident, an Englishman was in critical condition after being repeatedly hit over the head with an iron bar.
The No. 1 rule among Russian hooligans is supposedly not to carry knives, in a bid to distance themselves from their Polish counterparts. But assistant chief constable Mark Roberts, the head of Britain's Euro 2016 policing operation, told English newspaper The Guardian that some Russians — who had fingerless martial arts gloves and mouth guards — also carried knives
"One England fan was stabbed," Roberts said. "Most carried bum bags, possibly to conceal weapons."
How so many ferocious hooligans managed to get into France is startling.
The UK government confiscated the passports of 3,000 people identified as hooligans to prevent them from traveling, the French Interior ministry says.
Germans provided a list of 2,500 troublemakers. But Russian authorities provided just 30 names.
Igor Lebedev, a nationalist Russian lawmaker who sits on the Russian Football Union's board, seemed to praise those who fought.
"I don't see anything terrible in fans fighting. In fact, well done our guys," he wrote on Twitter. Speaking to The AP by telephone, Lebedev said he believed fans causing disorder should be punished by Russian authorities but said it was wrong to "disgrace" them.
Andrei Vdovin, a columnist with Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote on Monday that some hard-core Russian fans are not interested in football at all.
"The so-called 'active fans' have a European championships of their own," Vdovin said. "Russian fans are the odds-on favorites at this alternative Euro, and they will want to prove their strength again. Fights will happen. Not all of them will be reported. Active fans often have fights out of town, they agree on them ahead of time, and (the fights) last just a couple of minutes. Sometimes one of the groups does a big public stunt. This time it was the Russian fans who did this."
Only Polish hooligans are arguably more dangerous, particularly when Wisla Krakow faces sworn city enemy Cracovia. Last week, one Wisla group posted a picture online of a hunting knife alongside a passport — suggesting they are coming to France.
Four years ago, Russia vs. Poland on June 12 saw the worst fighting of Euro 2012.