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Russian hooligans in World Cup crackdown after 2016 rampage

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MOSCOW (AP) At their peak, Russian hooligans felt like gods.

“We’re on Mount Olympus right now and it had to be done,” is how one veteran hooligan from Moscow recounts his part in brawls with English fans at the 2016 European Championship. “We went for the English, who were kings, to knock them off their throne.”

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But ahead of the World Cup, Russian authorities are cracking down on the hooligan culture in football. Groups which wreaked havoc two years ago report surveillance and threats from law enforcement.

Leading hooligans from each club face lengthy prison sentences on old or trumped-up charges if there’s trouble at the World Cup, even if they aren’t personally involved, the Moscow hooligan – a large, muscular man with scars on his knuckles – told The Associated Press. He likened their situation to that of “hostages” and said the hooligan scene in Russia “is finished.”

“All the leaders get called in for chats,” he said, imitating an officer: “`On behalf of our state security service, I’ll explain that if there are problems, then those guys are in prison and you’ll be joining them. We need everything to go quietly.’ It’s been done precisely so that everyone understands that even if there’s no case against you, your guys will get it in your place.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity to describe numerous illegal acts, he said he traveled to Marseille in 2016 specifically to take part in fights with the English at the European Championships. England’s hooligans of the 1980s and 1990s inspired many Russian groups – most still bear English names – but in Marseille the Russians wanted to snuff out that reputation.

“For a long time the English were considered the strongest,” he said, but they were no match for Russians with martial-arts training. “There were guys sitting there with a Birmingham banner and we went up to them. `Either we’re taking your banner or you stand up and fight for it.’ The Birmingham guys decided they didn’t need the banner that much.”

The violence on Marseille’s streets and in the stadium was greeted with jokes and even praise from some Russian lawmakers and officials. President Vladimir Putin called the fighting “sad,” then questioned “how 200 Russian fans could beat up several thousand English,” to laughter from his audience.

Other sources with knowledge of the fan scene described the Russian crackdown since Marseille.

Alexander Shprygin ran a fan group which worked with the government on World Cup planning, and had been photographed with Putin. He has rapidly fallen from grace.

Shprygin was twice deported from France during the 2016 tournament and two of his organization’s board members were imprisoned in Marseille over the disorder. He denies any role. Three months later, Russian police arrested him in a toilet at the national football federation’s conference, seeking to question him over an earlier brawl in Russia, and dragged him out past waiting media. His organization has been dormant since then.

Shprygin told the AP his friends in the hardcore fan scene have been summoned by Russia’s Federal Security Service, the heir to the Soviet-era KGB, for “preventative conversations” and many want to go abroad during the World Cup.

“Many of them think like that because, God forbid, if anything happens, they won’t face questions,” he said. “They can just show their passport, that they weren’t in Russia.”

Russia has an official blacklist of fans banned from games by court orders for violent and non-violent offenses, but at 451 names it’s much smaller than equivalents in other large European countries.

Many more fans are barred from games using processes which aren’t publicly recorded and have little oversight.

World Cup tickets are worthless without a Russian government-issue “Fan ID”. Applicants are vetted by the Russian security services, who have denied several thousand Russian fans ID to see games at the World Cup and last year’s Confederations Cup, according to Oleg Semyonov, formerly a leader of the Spartak Moscow fan scene, who now runs a legal advice hotline for supporters.

Semyonov says authorities are using “a big database” to exclude people accused of taking part in football-related disorder – including Shprygin, whose ID was canceled two hours before a Confederations Cup game – but also some with convictions dating back 20 years for minor offenses like jaywalking or public drunkenness.

Most top Russian clubs have so-called “curators” from the security services “who work with the fan organizations” and have warned them off disorder, Semyonov added.

Russian police and the Federal Security Service did not respond to requests for comment.

Semyonov also suspects that Russian authorities tipped off German police about two Spartak fans who were arrested in February when traveling to a Europa League game. They are being detained in Marseille, reportedly in connection with the 2016 violence.

If there’s trouble at the World Cup, people with knowledge of the Russian fan scene said, it could involve visiting hooligans from Poland, Sweden or Croatia, or locals angered by what they see as foreigners’ obnoxious behavior.

“My prognosis is that if there are brawls, because football is all about emotions, they will be local and quickly defused. They won’t be on the same scale as Marseille,” Shprygin said, adding the Russian police can deal with violent resistance. “Football fans obviously aren’t opposition protests. Football fans are a bit more active. But the police have been training very hard for this for two years.”

Amid the crackdown, the Russian fan scene is increasingly split.

So-called “ultras” focus on coordinated chants, lighting flares and staging elaborate displays at games, but can defend themselves if needed. The hardcore fighters mostly stick to pre-arranged brawls in forests because of tight stadium surveillance. Some fighters are drifting away from football to mixed martial arts events to make money from their hobby.

“The respected guy in the movement” is now an athlete, not a street-fighter, Semyonov said. “Most of (the forest fighters) can’t even name five players from the club they’ve been fighting for,” Shprygin said.

The Moscow hooligan lamented the end of hooliganism’s golden era, when battles between rival clubs in Moscow came down to tactics as much as strength.

“You have to place young girls around by the entrances to buildings so they sit and wait for your enemies to leave the house and follow them to where they’re meeting,” he said. “You have to put people at different subway stations to find where they’re going to be, where the enemy is gathering, get there first and beat them up. It’s not just a matter of numbers. It’s always a game and back then it was the best.”

Hooliganism offers a brotherhood, even for those like the Moscow hooligan, who has a university education and a traditionally middle-class job. A world dominated by football’s brawlers would have a simple, honorable way to solve disputes, he argued.

“It always goes by the rule of the fist. If you’re stronger, you’re right,” he said. “If there were more people like that, maybe people wouldn’t be building missiles.”

Naira Davlashyan in Moscow and Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed to this report.

Key issues ahead of Premier League restart

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The 2019-20 Premier League season will restart on June 17, the league confirmed Thursday, but there are still plenty of issues to sort out ahead of the resumption.

‘Project Restart’ still has a little way to go, but we now have a date.

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The Premier League held in-depth meetings with all 20 clubs and, among other matters, June 17 emerged as the date games will return. Due to the coronavirus pandemic the Premier League season was suspended on March 13 with 92 games remaining.

As per the agreement, the two games in hand, Man City v. Arsenal and Aston Villa v. Sheffield United, will be played on June 17 so all teams are on 29 games played when then the rest of the games resume on June 19-21.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters confirmed the restart date of June 17, as long as everything goes as planned with a return to contact training and COVID-19 tests among Premier League staff and players.

There is still plenty to sort out though, so here’s a look at the key questions and issues which remain between now and the Premier League restart on June 17.


Will teams play games at home stadiums?

Some reports state that Liverpool will play home games at a neutral venue due to concerns from police about fans congregating outside Anfield considering their impending title victory. Other high-profile games such as Tottenham against Arsenal may not be played at home stadiums either as reports state that neutral stadiums such as Wembley may be used to host some of the higher profile matches. Simply put, the only thing we know about stadiums is that they will be empty for all of the remaining 92 games of the season.


What happens if there is a second wave of COVID-19 in the UK or within Premier League clubs?

The key part of Richard Masters’ statement was the first few sentences: “Today we have provisionally agreed to resume the Premier League on Wednesday 17 June. But this date cannot be confirmed until we have met all the safety requirements needed, as the health and welfare of all participants and supporters is our priority.” The Premier League have to first and foremost make sure there is no rise in the number of COVID-19 positive tests among its players and staff.

Staff and players are all tested twice per week and 60 tests will be available to each club. So far, out of 2,752 tests from three batches, there have been 12 positive COVID-19 tests. If those numbers stay that way, or fall, the Premier League will be in good shape to return, as planned, on June 17. If they rise, the date will have to be pushed back. There can be no room for complacency from clubs and players over safety protocols during the next three weeks and beyond. That said, the situation in the UK has been the worst in Europe in terms of the death toll and if a second spike arrives in England, the plan for the Premier League restart would be put in jeopardy.


If the season is delayed further and the games cannot be finished, then what?

It has been reported, but not confirmed, that clubs agreed that an unweighted points-per-game model will be used to decide the final table if the season is curtailed. That means that the average number of points teams have won during their games played so far will be calculated in accordance with their remaining games to play. The Premier League have admitted they will have to come to a curtailment plan just in case the situation worsens in the UK or within their clubs.


Using five substitutes per game?

This is something the Premier League can do as the IFAB rules allow it and have been modified during the pandemic. Clubs will be able to use five substitutes per game, up from three, but subs can only be used in specified windows such as half time so the flow of the game isn’t disrupted. This has worked well in the Bundesliga and it is expected it will also work well in the Premier League, especially with so many games being played in a six-week period.


What about players out of contract?

This is something the Premier League clubs have already agreed on. With most player contracts running until June 30, we now know that the 2019-20 season will run beyond that date. Up until June 23, clubs and players can agree to extend the contracts until the end of the 2019-20 season as a short-term measure. However, players and club do not have to do this so some players may be out of contract and free to move on from July 1.

Spadafora: Coppa Italia, Serie A can return June 13

Serie A return
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Italian football can return June 13 with the second legs of the Coppa Italia semifinals and perhaps the final, followed by Serie A the next weekend.

Italian sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora made the announcement Thursday, bringing calcio back to a country that’s been ravaged by the coronavirus.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

In addition to stringent testing protocols and quarantine for club members who test positive, Serie A has plans in place for another wave of the coronavirus should it rear its ugly head. From Football-Italia.com:

“The FIGC also assured me that the Plan B (play-offs and play-outs) and Plan C (using the existing table) can be adopted in case of suspension. It is not up to me as Minister to decide, as that will be done by the FIGC. In the light of all those events, we can today say that the season can resume from June 20.”

Spadafora said he was hopeful the entire Coppa Italia could be completed before June 20, which would be a heavy burden on two of the following semifinalists: AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, and Napoli.

The winners could face three matches inside of eight or nine days.

Napoli leads Inter after one leg in Milan, while Milan and Juve drew 1-1 at the San Siro.

Juve had its four Coppa run broken by Lazio last season. The Old Lady leads Lazio by one point in the race for a ninth-consecutive scudetto.

MLS announces return voluntary small group training

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Major League Soccer’s long road to returning from the coronavirus pause has hit another mile marker with the return of voluntary outdoor small group training.

The full team training moratorium remains in place through at least June 1.

MLS made the announcement Thursday and there are several stipulations given the size of our country and the variables in how it’s governed at the state and local level.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The voluntary sessions will be held “in compliance with detailed health and safety protocols that were created in consultation with medical and infectious disease experts.”

Perhaps most notably:

The sessions must not conflict with local public health official or government policies and provide the ability for players to step up their training while maintaining physical distancing protocols.

The league has been under a mandatory training moratorium since the league suspended its season on March 12.

MLS is also making sure to cover every base imaginable, healthwise and legal, by making public and transparent its demands of its clubs.

It’s been a busy break for MLS, which has canceled three major events but also taken hold of the boys youth soccer landscape.

Premier League schedule, how to watch

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The 2019-20 Premier League season will restart on June 17, the league confirmed on Thursday, and here is how you can watch every single game live on TV and online in the USA.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

‘Project Restart’ is all systems go.

The Premier League held in-depth meetings with all 20 clubs and, among other matters, June 17 emerged as the date games will return. Due to the coronavirus pandemic the Premier League season was suspended on March 13 with 92 games remaining.

As per the agreement, the two games in hand, Man City v. Arsenal and Aston Villa v. Sheffield United, will be played on June 17 so all teams are on 29 games played when then the rest of the games resume on June 19-21.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

It is believed that the clubs want the Premier League season to be finished by August 1, so clubs can then focus on the FA Cup and European action in the Europa League and Champions League, while the 2020-21 season can then resume in early September.

Below is how the new weekend and midweek schedule for the Premier League games in June and July will look, with specific games.

Click on the link above to watch every single Premier League game live in the USA across our platforms here at NBC Sports.

Weekend match schedule
Friday: 3 p.m. ET
Saturday: 7:30 a.m., ET, 10 a.m. ET, 12:30 p.m. ET, 3 p.m. ET
Sunday: 7 a.m. ET, 9 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. ET, 2 p.m. ET
Monday: 3 p.m. ET

Midweek match schedule
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 1 p.m. ET and 3 p.m. ET