MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, Dec 17 – Ahead of a sell-out European football match, Manchester police tracked fans’ movements via CCTV and Russian security officials joined them in the control room to learn more about tactics.
Officers, tipped off about a group of potentially disruptive supporters in the hours before last week’s Champions League clash between Manchester United and CSKA Moscow, moved swiftly to intercept them.
The fans “are keen on participating in disorder in Manchester,” Inspector Lee Cooklynn told a pre-game briefing at police headquarters five miles from the stadium in northwest England.
Police held the group of around 60 in a car park and escorted them back onto a train before any trouble flared.
The match was attended by around 75,000 people, including 1,270 CSKA fans and a delegation of Russian security officials, who visited police headquarters prior to the match.
It marked the latest dialogue between the two countries’ police as Russia prepares to host the 2018 World Cup.
After decades of dealing with England’s infamous, but much-reduced, football hooligan culture, British commanders have strategies and tactics to share.
Russia is grappling with its own hooligan problem and fears violence could overshadow the tournament next summer.
Fighting between well-prepared Russian fans and English supporters marred their Euro 2016 game in Marseille, France, and both sides are eager to avoid a repeat next summer.
Britain and Russia may have tense political relations, but — in football policing at least — they are cooperating.
“It’s an opportunity to build relationships and a rapport, explain to them how England fans are normally treated (and) how we would work the policing,” Assistant Chief Constable Mark Roberts, Britain’s most senior officer in charge of football, told AFP in Manchester.
“Clearly after what happened in Marseille and some of the other… issues that associate themselves with football in Russia, there is a potential issue.”
– ‘Style and philosophy’ –
Although football-related violence still occurs in Britain, it has been largely eradicated from stadiums.
A combination of intelligence, stewarding, CCTV and laws allowing authorities to ban problem fans from travelling to games has helped, according to Chief Superintendent John O’Hare, who is in charge of football policing in Manchester.
“What we try and show them is a different policing style and philosophy,” he said after hosting the Russian delegation.
“We’ve very much progressed from treating football fans as criminals, and treating them like animals sometimes, to understanding that the vast majority are thoroughly decent individuals.”
The fact-finding missions have gone in both directions.
British police travelled to Moscow earlier this year, when English teams played there without off-field incident.
Roberts said officers will return during the World Cup, to a coordination centre and the cities of Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad, where England will play.
Junior Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Titov earlier this month to discuss security.
The British embassy in Moscow has also toured all 11 of the host cities to see safety and security preparations.
Meanwhile Britain’s Foreign Office has launched a “be on the ball” campaign for up to 20,000 English fans expected, with tips and checks to “help avoid preventable problems”.
Roberts hopes they will be “aware that you’re in a different culture”, minimising notoriously heavy drinking and rowdiness, and that Russian authorities mirror British police’s more hands-off approach.
“But you’ve got to accept it is Russia, it is their policing style… and you need to cater your behaviour towards that,” he added.
– ‘On people’s minds’ –
Andy Mitten, editor of Manchester United’s fanzine, has watched British football policing improve over the decades, and is heartened Russian officials are taking note.
“It’s very sophisticated and very successful now, and I think other police forces can learn from the British,” he said.
Mitten, who has followed United to Russia on numerous occasions, believes fears of violence next summer are “overplayed”, citing a recent crackdown on hooligans by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“They know that if there are incidents of hooliganism, it will be reported and it will put such a black mark on the image of Russia,” he said.
But with memories of Marseille and British tabloids warning of Russia’s “bloodthirsty hooligans”, some supporters are wary.
“It’s definitely on people’s minds,” said Danny Kay, 27, from Bolton.
“(Russian police) have got a pretty bad rep over here… I don’t think anyone would really have any confidence in them.”
Russian fans in Manchester sounded more reassuring.
“It’s safe — people are really friendly and I think everything will be fine,” said Angelika Chelysheva, a 27-year-old Moscovite.
The match in Manchester — categorised as “medium-risk” for disorder –- passed off peacefully, with police making just two related arrests, for drunken behaviour.
“It’s all in the planning really — that’s the key to the success of these operations,” said Chief Inspector Andy Sutcliffe, surveying Old Trafford’s busy, but peaceful, forecourt.