'Consistent reassurance of safe event' - UK's top football police chief on Russia 2018
In a Foreign Affairs Select Committee held in UK Parliament on Thursday, Deputy Chief Constable Roberts gave evidence that kicked tabloid headlines predicting a "bloodbath" between fans into touch.
"We've had a great number of meetings with them and every time we've met them, there is a consistent reassurance that their aspiration is to put on a safe event that shows Russia to the best of its abilities," Roberts told the committee.
Flanked by Kevin Miles, Football Supporters Federation (FSF) chief executive, Roberts said authorities in both countries had been cooperating to prevent any violence and he believed Russia was on top of security for the complex event.
England and Russian fans clashed in bloody battles before, during and after their 2016 European Championships Group B opener at Stade Velodrome, Marseille, France. The aftermath saw a spike in worry for fan safety at Russia 2018.
Tabloid newspaper The Sun made unfounded claims that Russian 'hooligans' issued a "death threat" to England fans, which were echoed in a piece from The Express who claimed fans were pledging a "death sentence".
Apparently holding the same views, committee member and Labour Party MP Chris Bryant, who is Welsh and therefore does not have a team to follow at Russia 2018, was unimpressed by Roberts' findings. He said that Russian fans' "antagonizing" behavior made any guarantee of safety "inconceivable".
When told by Bryant that those factors made his claims "naive", Roberts reassured the MP that he was simply dealing in "facts". He told the committee he was "acutely aware" of the events in France but commented that Russian forces on the ground were "really committed" to stopping disorder in Marseille.
Reference was also made to the five matches involving UK teams that have taken place on Russian soil and passed without an incident of violence. English Premier League sides Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool all visited the capital for the 2017/18 Champions League.
Scottish club Celtic also visited St. Petersburg in the Europa League. United's trip to Rostov in the same tournament in March 2017 saw the inception of the 'Gentlefan' initiative where blankets were handed out to traveling UK supporters.
That action was continued for follow-up visits. On their return to Russia to play CSKA Moscow, United fans were presented with raincoats decorated with the 'Gentlefan' logo; one day later, Liverpool fans received commemorative shirts embroidered with each of their fixtures against Spartak Moscow.
Last month, Arsenal fans were given 'Gentlefan' fur hats before their game with CSKA, an action branded "heartwarming" by fans. In an interview with RT Sport, Arsenal Fan TV host Robbie Lyle proclaimed the football atmosphere in Russia is "nothing like what's been reported" by Western media.
Roberts pointed to these matches as one of the main reasons hysteria should not be created around football matches in Russia. Ironically, it appears Russian forces who seem to be disenchanted with the behavior of England fans. Over 100 traveling fans were arrested in Amsterdam when England played Netherlands in a friendly in March.
Members of Russia's police had been shadowing their UK counterparts at the match in an effort to influence their handling in Russia. Their showing left UK cops red-faced in front of Russian forces, with Roberts commenting the efforts had been "wasted."
"When we're trying to persuade them that the majority of fans don't cause problems, scenes like that over the weekend really does make people's lives harder," Roberts said at the time.
England fans will first visit Volgograd for their Group G opener versus Tunisia on June 18. The team will the take on Panama in Nizhny Novgorod on June 24 before completing their group games against Belgium in Kaliningrad four days later.