MOSCOW – A Russian lawmaker has proposed an unorthodox solution to the country's problems with soccer hooliganism ahead of next year's World Cup -- legalize it and make it a spectator sport.
Organized groups of Russian fans, many with martial arts training, fought English fans on the streets of Marseille during last year's European Championship.
That inspired Igor Lebedev, who sits in the Russian parliament, to draw up rules for what he calls "draka," the Russian word for "fight" -- 20 fighters on each side, unarmed, in an arena.
In a statement on the website of the nationalist LDPR party, Lebedev said organized brawls "could turn fans' aggression in a peaceful direction." He also claimed it would serve as an "example" for English fans, who he characterized as undisciplined louts and poor fighters.
"Russia would be a pioneer in a new sport," said Lebedev, who also suggested fights between different fan groups could draw crowds of thousands. "English fans arrive, for example, and start picking fights. And they get the answer -- challenge accepted. A meeting in a stadium at a set time."
Some fan groups in Russia already hold illicit fights along similar lines, typically pre-arranged mass brawls in rural locations, away from police. A Russian Premier League game on Saturday between CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg was marred by clashes between small groups of rival fans who fought one another and tried to break through a security fence.
It isn't the first time Lebedev has courted controversy with his views on hooligans. He hailed the violence in Marseille last year, telling Russian fans: "Well done lads, keep it up!"
Besides his parliamentary duties as deputy speaker, Lebedev is also on the board of the Russian Football Union. He's a longtime associate of fan leader Alexander Shprygin, who was deported from France last year following the Marseille violence. Two board members of an organization run by Shprygin were given prison sentences.
Despite his enthusiasm for soccer-related violence, Lebedev insisted Russian policing meant foreign fans wouldn't be in danger at the World Cup. "We've taken all the safety measures, modernized legislation. Not a single tourist has any reason to fear traveling to our country in the summer of 2018."