Three important principles for operational safety are situational awareness, decision making and knowing what to do to prevent and mitigate the risks. Andy Gordon shares his thoughts and experiences of how these principles apply to football fans travelling to the World Cup in Russia.

I’ve been a Liverpool fan all my life and have followed them all over the UK and in Europe. I am, like the vast majority of all football fans, only looking to enjoy myself and support my team wherever they may be playing. Unfortunately there are a few, from every club and country, who are not satisfied by peacefully watching a game of footy and enjoying the delights of whatever town, city or country it may be taking place in. They get there entertainment by looking for trouble, particularly with like-minded fans from the other teams.

This is far from being just an English problem but, like it or not, fans from England have been in the news far too often for the wrong reasons, both clubs and country, and we have a bit of a reputation. Which, of course, is attractive to the trouble causers who pretend to represent other teams or countries.

Large football competitions, such as the world cup, offer an irresistible opportunity to a certain type of fan to ‘test their mettle’ against similar fans from other countries in a rather dark, alternative version to the actual competition of finding the country with the best football team. In their world it becomes a competition to discover which country’s football team has the hardest thugs supporting it!

Unfortunately, they just can’t bring themselves to keep their past time to themselves and love nothing better than getting other, genuine fans and the local authorities involved. The more people they can drag into the bottle throwing, table smashing, restaurant wrecking and fist/knife fighting sport they consider to be fun the better.

So, the trick for the genuine fan is to avoid getting involved and there are a few basics which, if practiced, will go a long way to keeping you out of trouble, safe and free to enjoy the place and the game.

I speak from the experience of not always having followed these basic practices and having got caught up in something I really didn’t want to be involved in. I have always been able to extricate myself quickly and safely but if I’d been a little more careful and a little less naïve I wouldn’t have put myself in harm’s way in the first place.

In addition, and specifically for this particular world cup, I speak from the experience of having worked on and off in Russia for more than three years and having got to know a little about the place, its people and its culture. Russians are basically wonderful people. It takes time to get to know them and for them to trust you but once they do you have a loyal friend for life. However, as with any place in the world, there are a small minority of bad folk whom you definitely want to avoid. In addition, Russians don’t back down easily and can be pretty stubborn (you will see advice later on not getting into drinking competitions with them!!). Also, to most English people the Russians can come across as being quite rude. They are not, it is just a cultural difference and not to get upset by, you will be in their country, show a little tolerance. The most obvious place this shows up is in queues, Russian have no concept of waiting in a queue, that is a very British thing.

So, here goes some brief guidance from a well-travelled fan who has never gone looking for trouble but has allowed himself to be found by it, unnecessarily, due to a degree of thoughtlessness, poor decision making and a naïve belief that everyone is just there to enjoy the game.

Alcohol

Really had to mention this first. Now, no one is saying you have to be a miserable so-and-so and can’t even have a pint with your mates, or even a few pints. All I am suggesting is exercise some moderation. People having too much alcohol is very often a major contributor to trouble, especially when it is types of drinks that they are not used to such as strong beer or spirits. The temptation is Russia will be to try the local vodka, especially because, in comparison to other drinks, it is relatively cheap. By all means try it, just don’t go mad on it! The problem with alcohol is that it dulls your senses and awareness and so you miss the vital signs that signal trouble is in the air and you don’t react in time to get out of the way. It also adversely affects your decision making. With some people it can make them quicken to anger and violence more readily and it can make people feel dangerously brave and indestructible. Drink enough to enjoy yourself whilst maintaining your alert senses to a sufficient degree to be effective in identifying trouble before its starts, not after someone smashes a table over your head or shoves a bottle in your face.

Definitely avoid getting into drinking competitions with locals. It may seem the friendly thing to do but it often ends badly.

Noise

Keep your listening tuned in all the time. Stop every now and again and just listen to what is going on around you. We all have the ability to identify when an atmosphere is starting to turn ugly. Our brain has a brilliant early warning system, take notice of it. At the first sign of angry voices or other obvious warning sounds get up and be ready to leave in a hurry.

Keep a look out

Regularly scan your environment for warning signs. Perhaps you see a group who look like they might be on a mission to find or start trouble. Perhaps you see a group of fans from another team approaching with a look of mal intent. Whatever it might be, again, take notice and leave or be ready to leave in a hurry.

Large groups

Try not to get caught up in large groups either going to or coming away from the stadium or generally on the streets. If you do find yourself in a large group, try to make sure you are on the edge of the group, not in the middle where you will get trapped.

Small groups or on your own

You are probably safer in small groups. However, avoid areas of town where you might be vulnerable. Visiting large, well-attended tourist attractions is fine, seeking out quiet back street bars or other establishments will leave you open to attack by opportunists. These are likely to be just local criminals and nothing to do with other teams’ fans. Definitely avoid going anywhere on your own and, if you have to, always make sure someone knows where you are going and how long you will be. A person on their own in a foreign country they know nothing about is at high risk. You will stick out like a sore thumb and be easily identifiable as a football fan, probably carrying cash, a phone, cards and match tickets that can be sold. English people are generally easy to identify abroad and this could make you an easy target. Make sure you know the emergency number to call.

Authorities

A simple rule, always do what the authorities tell you to do. Policing styles vary from country to country but I can guarantee that, during the world cup, the police will be on edge and expecting trouble (they have to be). They will also have drafted in the hardest and most capable of dealing with trouble individuals and, believe me, some of these guys make the thugs from opposing teams look like nuns on an outing! I also guarantee they won’t have had a drink and will be at their sharpest. Don’t give them a reason, just do what they say!

Be prepared

Finally, and probably most important of all, as soon as you get anywhere in any situation the first thing you must do is look around and work out an escape plan should trouble kick-off. Even better if the plan is a combined effort with your mates. Check for all exits and work out how you will get to each depending on where the trouble is (obviously the exit furthest away from the trouble is most desirable). Work out how the exit opens, find out whether it is locked or not and try to find out what’s on the other side. You don’t want to walk straight into a blind alley or more trouble. I once had a mate whose plan was to climb out of the gents’ toilet window in a club in Manchester if there was trouble (which there often was). He had never bothered to find out what was on the other side. He was so confident his plan was the best until there was trouble one night and he put his plan into action. He duly headed for the gents’, climbed out the window and plummeted into the Irwell canal!! Fortunately, the rest of us had put our slightly better thought out plan into action and had exited the club through the front door so we were able to fish him out of the canal before he drowned.

A great mentor of mine once said to me “never get yourself into something that you haven’t already planned your way out of”. Wise words and highly applicable to following your team to the world cup in Russia, whoever you may be and whoever you are going to support.

One Comment

  • Sean Hanley says:

    Thanks Andy – interesting blog. Like you I’m a football supporter and have followed the Scottish National team home and away for many years. While I wouldn’t hold the Scottish fans up as paragons of virtue (some of our club sides have been embarrassing for instance), I do think that lessons were learned many years ago and there was a realisation that things had to change. Travelling abroad in particular I believe that a mixture of self policing (so that even the drunkest are looked out for!) and respect for local cultures has helped. I’m not suggesting that Scots are any different from anyone else, however when supporting the team, I do believe that we usually leave a really positive impression. Perhaps the fact that we don’t have sky high expectations these days has helped, however we still have our fair share of crushing disappointments to deal with.

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