UK media paints false image of Russian fans to sell papers – ex-hooligan Cass Pennant

The FIFA Confederations Cup is kicking off in Russia, as it prepares for an even bigger football celebration next year – the Word Cup. Fans from across the globe are heading to Russian cities, but with them comes the threat of hooliganism. Tough measures are in place to avoid violence ruining the events. With the Western media constantly scaring its audience about Russian hooligans, are they really as dangerous as they’re painted? We ask a legendary figure in the world of football hooliganism, author Cass Pennant.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Cass Pennant, former football hooligan, now author of numerous books, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us, Cass. Now, you’ve met Russian hooligans before - and they view you as a legend. Are they really so blood-thirsty as the media paints them?

Cass Pennant: No. What they are is trained fighters. The guys I met, that was in 2004 during the Euros, and they were quite young, and they reminded me of the hooligans in England that made a notorious name for themselves back in the 70s and early 80s. They had the same hunger, the same look, the same sense of excitement. They were very pleased to meet me, and only one of them spoke English and acted as interpreter, and it was the first time they were allowed out of Russia as a group with visas and stuff. They were very excited to test themselves against the English in the Euro championship of 2004, and they told me -- I said “How did you know my name?”, I was an author and I wasn’t aware of my book published in Russia. And they said “Don’t worry Cass Pennant, we know all English authors, they are legends in Russia, we learned  from your books, and England is the motherland of hooliganism. Welcome to Russia.”

SS: Welcome to Russia! Are you scared of coming to the World Cup?

CP: Myself, I am of the age now when I prefer to watch it on TV. I’ve been invited to Moscow once I get the time, because I’m filmmaker now, I would love to go out to Moscow. I’ve been invited by the Russians I met in 2004,  they’ve stayed in touch with me, and I’ve learned a lot about them, because in the Euros I’ve spent at least 2-3 weeks interviewing them for the forthcoming book the following year.

SS: A lot of the time hooligans are branded fascists and criminals by the media – you’ve experienced this as well back in the day. Does the media exaggerate the ties between hooliganism and criminality?

СP: The media played an important role in football hooliganism. In fact, back in England it used to fuel the violence because the hooligans relied on the media and the information they got from the media, it started to leak of  violence on the football stadiums and outside the stadiums, thanks to irresponsible media reporting. In fact, in the international games, a lot of fans very much dislike the media, because they have different stories to the one reported.

SS: How do  you change this misperception between the football fans – or hooligans – and those on the outside?

CP: One way, one reason I became an author is because I felt there was a different story to the one that the public was being told by the media. And I’ve become quite a successful author when people realised there was a different story. In fact, a lot of people learned from our books - students, people that are working against hooliganism learned an awful lot about the nature and the people they are classing as hooligans, from getting information from those who’ve experienced it.

SS: UK papers like the Mirror and Daily Mail were quick to publish videos claiming to show Russian hooligans fighting - while in reality this was a traditional spring festival play fight, and that’s  not even the first time this sort of thing happened. How does this affect the perception of a regular British football fan?

CP: As a former British hooligan, this kind of reporting - and I did see that video - and anyone who watched it can say straight away that was not football hooliganism! But it sells papers, you know, they put the headlines out, and people buy the paper when they see headline, and when they’re reading the text and they’re not seeing the video, which me and you’ve seen, that shows something entirely different. We’ve experienced that, the Russian hooligans that I’ve met experienced that, the same as the English hooligans. That doesn’t mean to say that hooliganism doesn’t go on, it clearly does, but there’s one thing about misreporting it. And like I said, Britain has got a lot of the problems they had with hooliganism in the 70s and 80s solved. It seems to be now a new phenomenon with East Europeans, and since the fall of the Soviet Union, you’re experiencing now. England experienced that, and I realise that reporting has an influence, to the point now that they don’t really report football violence in England unless they have to, and I think there’s an unwritten rule with the press  in England, and it only applies to the English League clubs. But when they play international, they’ve got the freedom to report how they wish. They've got a lot of freedom. Hence, before a major tournament, like the World Cup, or the Euros - but with the World Cup coming up - you will see a lot of media in this country, from the press - Mirror and The Sun, and basically, the whole British press establishment - go overboard before the ball is kicked in the World Cup, about the threat of violence. When the tournament actually happens, you will find that violence involves a minority and it is not as damaging as the press built it up to be beforehand. Because of the measures that are in place today.

SS: After watching all these movies and reading the hysteria in the media, is there a danger English fans could be seeking retaliation in 2018? Especially after last years’ violence at the Euros in Marseille?

CP: Certainly, what did happen, did happen, and it is not going to miss. But like I’ve said, because of the events like Heysel, because England fans have been banned before for outrageous acts of violence similar to what we’ve seen in the Euros in 2016, because England’s been through that, they know who the hooligans are and they know the measures to try to stop them leaving the country. So many of them will not make it to Russia.

SS: While football hooligans may be learning from the English hooligan movements of decades ago, Russian authorities are also taking a page from England’s playbook - enforcing tougher rules and penalties for violence at sporting events. Do you think it will work?

CP: Each country is to its own, it’s better itshared intelligence, shared information. They couldn’t really solve England for a long time, because each authority was doing different things. It’s only when all the authorities, the football clubs, the police and the courts all come together, were they able to really get on top of the violence in England, and from that they’ve never looked back in terms of authorities being in charge of crowd control, and they’re very effective. I think, what’s going on in Russia, I think they will take similar action, because I think they know that the West, a certain part of the media in the West, they’re looking for Russia to fail at a major sporting event, and I think Russia will realise the world will be watching for signs of football violence that they can obviously play up in the media, and might use that politically. So, it is quite obvious that a lot of Russian hooligans will expect a clampdown well before the first ball is kicked in the tournament.

SS: Is the scare fare on TV and in other media done in hope that Russia will be stripped of the tournament, and maybe it’ll go to England finally? Calls for action like this have been heard for years now…

CP: I think, what’s going on, as a person on the terraces, on the football stands in England, they kind of pride themselves, the football fans, of not being involved politically, they don’t take the politics into football. But you can’t have missed being in England, what I read, what I listen to - there’s a real, in the last few years, an anti-Russia thing. I don’t know where that’s come from. But you can see that building up in press to almost hysterical levels, and sport has nothing to do with war and politics, but you can see it being used as a political football.

SS: UK’s football police chief Mark Roberts warned that vile behavior of a minority of British fans in Russia would put all fans at risk. Do you agree with this?

CP: Not on the whole. I think the problem is that Russian football hooligans, as they perceive themselves, adopted a model from the English hooligans, but what’s going on is entirely different. The English feel that the Russian hooligans have got a different strand of football violence to the one they had, and it’s this misunderstanding of cultures that causes problems. Like I’ve said, in England, the majority of English fan base is welcome at major tournaments across the world, because they spend well, they drink the bars dry, and they cause little problems. It’s only the minority. But the Russian hooligans do not know who’s a hooligan, and who’s a non-hooligan amongst the English. They will look at: he’s an English guy, they will look at the way that he’s dressed, and the hooligan will attack that hooligan. And I think that’s what happened in the Euros, which angered a lot of English hooligans that I’ve interviewed are really angry that the Russians attacked non-violent supporters, when the Russian hooligans I’ve met actually say “We fight with honor”. So it’s this understanding of what is a hooligan, and because the reputation of the English actually rebounded on the English fans, where in today’s world they’re much - was the hunter - and now they are the hunted.

SS: Whenever fights between hooligans from different countries break out, it immediately becomes infused with politics - why does it sometimes become less of a problem and instead a source of national pride, “english fans are better than the russians”, or vice versa?

CP: Because football itself, as a sport, is different to any other sport, where audience participation can actually affect the game. I don’t know any other sport where the audience can actually be part of the players. You’ve watched tennis, snooker, F1, rugby even...and you watch football, and the atmosphere on the ground can affect the game. You can see players running faster, you can see the emotions of players, the engagement between the players and the crowd - there’s no other sport where the crowd can actually influence the game and can create and atmosphere from nothing. It’s very powerful. A lot of football fans that get involved in violence say it’s better than sex, and actually say it’s a drug. If you think about every addiction in life there’s rehab or someone - professors, experts - treating it, you know, even violence, and anger, it’s all treated. But no one treats a football hooligan. I know a lot of hooligans become addicted. It’s something normal guys do  - doctors, managers, teachers. That makes it very difficult to understand  football violence, and judge people, because they’re not giving up their fellow supporters. If you look at football stadiums with 50,000 fans, and say, 200 hooligans are causing problems with flares and whatnot. The other 50,000 fans who do not give these fans up, they see them as fans, but fans that go too far. It’s not something they would do, but at the same time, they do recognise them as fans. While the media gets hysterical and paints these guys as monsters. But if you look at their day jobs, and what they do in life, certainly guys I’ve met and interviewed, they all had higher education, they’ve all been to Russian universities. And it’s very similar to the gangs in England. The ones I met, the leaders, for those that [hooliganism] became a way of life, they  were very intelligent guys.

SS: Football in particular has always been a way to represent class, to reinforce who you are - like the Catholics rooting for Celtic and the Protestants for Rangers in Scotland; like the Barcelona fans waving Catalan flags at matches, like the London rivalries you were a part of - but do you think football is maybe taken too seriously, I mean, it’s just a game after all?

CP: You can’t say that Sophie. Football is more than a game, and that’s why it’s different to other sports. Yes, you’re right in what you’re saying, if it applies to other sports. Yeah, you really enjoy that sport, you take an interest, and you watch that sport and then you leave, yeah? But, with football, people live there. This is a chance for the guys in the audience in their group of their choosing to be winners too. It might not fit into society, and it might result in violence and stuff like that, but they see it as more than just two hours’ entertainment when they go to a football match and have a  fight. Some of these guys that are involved at the  front of it, at the hardcore of it, live in that world.

SS: The right thing to say is that  politics has no place in sport... but the two have really been fused together forever. How can you make national teams compete and pretend this isn’t about politics at all? Can you ever take politics out of sports, disentangle sports and politics?

CP: It happened in England. Politics, for one spell I recall in my lifetime tried to get involved in the terraces and it was far-right right groups, the British National Party movement, the BNP and the National Front. Within a couple of years that was driven out of the stadiums and the terraces, the influence of politics. It didn’t come from establishment, it didn’t come from right-thinking authorities. It came from the fans themselves, the fans themselves decided that enough is enough, and drove it out. The same thing happened to an extent with football violence. If the fans actually want to commit football violence, they will do it. In big crowds you can’t actually stop it. You can enforce the law, but you can’t stop the will of the fans from it happening. After Heysel , the English clubs, a lot of fans themselves said enough is enough, they policed themselves and moved on to something else. So, there’s always hope. A lot of the time that’s how it's handled. Some of the major World Cup tournaments, where the media predicted trouble, has not happened, because the way there were policed. One of the big things that a lot of people miss with the football fan is the word “respect”. The tournaments where the police and authorities have treated the fans with respect, including from where they stay, how they’re greeted while they’re drinking in the square - it has helped to stop it spreading.

SS: Football violence could be seen as a way of letting off steam - and now there’s even been calls for making it an organised show, with rules, controlled matches, basically turn it from a street brawl to a mass UFC fight - what do you think about that?

CP: They misunderstand the football hooligans, shall we say. I’ve heard that several times over the years, and, actually, had offers. But as soon as that happens that becomes mainstream. The whole thing with the football thing is identity,  that no one makes the rules for them. When they live the stadium, society makes the rules for them. When they’re in the groups in the stadium they make the rules themselves. It’s that freedom aspect they miss.

SS: Russian football fans, they read English books on hooliganism, watch movies, you’re one of the people that’s inspired the hooligan movement in Russia in the first place with your works, for instance - what do you make of that? Is the hooliganism depicted in books and movies more glamourous than in reality? Does it create a sort of a false attraction to the phenomenon?

CP: When it comes the the film, there’s a film made out of my life, my life has been made into a film, and a lot of people weren’t happy about that in right-thinking society. But when they watched the film, they saw there’s a different story there, a real person, and there’s a lot of other ingredients going. The problem with football violence is that it’s a grey area, and society has everything in black and white. We can’t have grey areas, we’ve got to have an answer for everything. Sometimes, there’s no answer, it is what it is… What I can say? A lot of soldiers… I used to like history, it was my favorite subject, and soldiers would never talk about their experiences in a way, and I’d say to them - what is the best war film? And they say: “None”. And one said to me once : “No film can give you real Cass”. And the football films and books only come in 2000s, it’s a late, a modern-day phenomenon, and the reason they’re doing so well is because people know it’s not real. People who are buying the books are not other hooligans, it’s people who are not like that in life whatsoever. It’s the same thing when you go to the bookshop and you buy books on crime - you’re not going to go home, read that book and rob a bank. It’s the  same thing, you can’t just walk into a gang, because you watched the film. That’s what I’ve always said in interviews, and that’s what I’ve always swore by. So when I met the Russians, it was a shock to me, when they said they are influenced by the books and the films, it was a total shock. But I went on to look deeper, look at their culture, and look, they’re just experiencing what the West had for many years, since the 50s. Their age group was 18 to 24, so they’re basically teenagers, and with the fall of the Soviet Union, there wasn’t conscripts anymore, so they were going from university to jobs. They were killing time… They were single, so they had no responsibility family-wise. So there’s a lot of social ingredients around that you can answer. A lot of what we see today with the problems of football violence is not really an English one, but it's what we had in the 70s and 80s. And as the Russians said, we’ve given the world [hooliganism]. But the adoption, you’ve got to look at the deeper factors behind what you’re seeing.

SS: Nowadays, The Russian Football Union came up with the “Gentlefan” initiative during a series of football matches in the run up to 2018 World Cup - supporters of rival teams were welcomed by Russian fans with warm blankets, Rostov vs Manchester United, etc. Do initiatives like this really help decrease the level of tension at tournaments or is this too toothless?

CP: The hooligans themselves would probably laugh at it, but the majority of football fans that goes to these tournaments, particularly English fans, will welcome it. I’ve seen that with the Man. United and the Russian thing, and I think it’s positive. The fans themselves can do a lot to solve a lot of problems. And one thing is that in England it’s not cool anymore to be a football hooligan, so the majority of fans, a lot of hooligans just basically stopped the violence and became a fan. You’ve got to think, Sophie, the problems of football… No one was born a hooligan. There’s fans first, who then become hooligans, and it’s just as easy to go back to being fans. And this reflects what’s going on in Russia - it shows that they’re trying, it shows what I said,  the one word: “respect”.  A lot of the fans that travel to these tournaments save up for four years, they save lots of money to go to the tournament, and they save up, and they get to this tournament, and everyone is treated as a hooligan, everyone’s treated with no respect, so when Russia has these initiatives, with groups trying to engage the fans to be friendly and show the fans respect, they create a different atmosphere and it spreads. When the police uses force and it’s not justified or the force that is used is over-justified - the normal fans then stick with hooligans, because they will threatened and outraged themselves. And that creates an atmosphere, and then it gets dangerous, where the police have to back off, because the whole crowd feels  like a gang, it’s an ugly atmosphere, and it’s what sometimes causes the problem. So, initiatives like that - as I said, fans recognise the word “respect” and what you’re telling me and what I’ve seen at that… It’ll be respected by the vast majority of fans. The actual hooligans themselves may have another agenda, but if they’re isolated like that, then it’s easy to control them and constrain them. I’m quite sure that Russians will do like the English did and move well before ball’s kicked in the World Cup in 2018.

SS: Cass, thanks a lot for this interview, for this interesting insight into the world of hooliganism. We wish you all the best, we were talking to Cass Pennant, author, a former football hooligan, digging into the nature of violence around football and the dangers it may pose ahead of football’s biggest tournaments. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.