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Saudi football fans shrug off Russian hooligan fears for 2018 World Cup

File photo shows ecstatic Saudi football fans during the Asian World Cup qualifying match between Japan and Saudi Arabia on Sept. 5. (Reuters)
LONDON: Saudi Arabian football fans are ready to brave supporting the Green Falcons at next year’s World Cup in Russia, despite widespread fears about hooliganism.
This summer the Russian tourist board opened a World Cup information center in London which the British media reported was to help ease England fans’ fears about hooligans at the 2018 World Cup.
The Russia tourist board denied that this was the reason behind the opening.
Last year’s European Championships, for many, set a worrying precedent.
Russia fans clashed repeatedly with England supporters when the two teams met in the group-stage match in Marseilles. The clashes, which took place both inside and outside the stadium, were blamed on a group of 150 hardcore trained hooligans from Russian gangs who traveled to France just to cause trouble.
“I and other fans have heard a few stories about Russian fans, stories saying they are violent and aggressive,” said Saudi football fan Faisal Ali. “I haven’t come across any Russian fans but we have heard stories about them fighting and taking on other fans. Hopefully it won’t put fans off traveling to support the country but it is the current climate of the world everyone seems weary of everyone else at the moment, it’s just how it is.”
It was the worst violence at an international tournament since the 1998 World Cup, also in France. The worried mood was not helped when Russian MP Igor Lebedev told the thugs after their battle in Marseilles: “Well done lads. Keep it up!”
The deadly display in France is set against a no less worrying backdrop of violence at Russian domestic matches. Neo-Nazi groups regularly turn up to games, the result being that their displays of hate and racism are as much a feature of the 90 minutes as goals and tackles.
That, however, has not put off Saudi Arabia fans keen to cheer on the team’s first appearance at a World Cup for 12 years. While the fans Arab News spoke to were well aware of threat of violence, they claimed they would not miss the opportunity to support their team in Russia.
Abdullah Al-Hudaithi said it was not the first time a World Cup had been scheduled to take place in a country where security fears sometimes dominated discussion.
“We know about Russia fans, we watched the European Championships and saw what happened,” Al-Hudaithi said.
“They have organized groups and we saw the violence and the unprovoked attacks, Russian fans have a bad reputation.
“But the World Cup has taken place in countries that many don’t think are safe before. In South Africa and Brazil there was worry about the threat of robberies.”
Added to that is the hope, and expectation, that Russian authorities will ensure there will be no major trouble while the eyes of the world are focused on the country.
“I expect there will be trouble between England and Russia fans, but not with us,” Al-Hudaithi said.
“We don’t have any Ultras, groups like that, we are well behaved so that’s why I don’t expect any trouble.
“Russian hooligans can be brutal, but inside their own country I expect the authorities to be organized and stop any trouble.”
Indeed, such is the expectation that trouble will not tarnish Saudi fans’ World Cup, the biggest worry ahead of the tournament is the more prosaic problem of getting visas and arranging travel.
“I have a few questions about getting a visa, we cannot get a tourist visa here in Saudi Arabia. That is my biggest worry,” Abdullah Al-Jassim said.
“I and many friends are planning to go to the 2018 World Cup but certainly there must be facilities by the Russian government on visas, safety and facilities.”
This summer the Confederations Cup, the traditional dry run for the World Cup, took place in Russia and passed off without incident.
That according to Alexey Cherepanov, director of Visit Russia UK, is what all fans can expect next summer.
“The news in the UK has presented (the Russian World Cup and opening of our office in London) in very negative terms, in real life it is not as the press has presented it, they have sensationalized it all,” he told Arab News.
“People in Russia welcome football fans and foreigners, we love and respect all people.
“This center in London is unique, it’s a pilot project if it goes well then other Visit Russia offices can open a World Cup office as well.
“In the Middle East we have Visit Russia offices in Dubai, Iran and Kuwait. Fans from KSA can call us and we’d try to help as much as possible.”