The Russians Are Coming

The last time that Poland watched a large crowd of Russians crossing the Vistula it was 1945 and the invaders were riding on T34 tanks and dragging rocket launchers. It's a pretty safe bet that when history repeats itself later today the Russians won't be carrying nearly as much military hardware as they did the last time - and in any case they'll be headed east to Praga Południe instead of west into the lair of the Fascist beast - but Polish authorities are still plenty nervous about it.

Here are the Moscow police helping some local football fans enjoy the game

It seems that, for Russia, June 12 is a national holiday - "Independence Day" commemorates the date when they finally ousted Joe Stalin's ideological heirs and handed the country over to the Russian mafia, but hey: a party is a party - and as luck would have it it's also the day that Poland will play the former Soviets in Euro 2012 at the beautiful new Stadion Narodowy (National Stadium) in Warsaw.

Which seemed to the local government and Euro 2012 organizers - weeks ago, it should be noted - plenty of reason to give the nod to a "fan march" from the heart of the city to the stadium.

I mean hey, anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 booze-soaked Russian soccer fans marching en masse through the streets of Warsaw on the way to a football match against the Poles; what could possibly go wrong?

(Terrible idea of the day: one local government official suggested that, to change the dynamic, Polish fans should be invited to march along WITH the Russians in a "show of brotherhood". Might as well bring along the Guinness people so they can certify "The World's Largest-Ever Riot".)

Now granted this was all planned long before last Friday when, in the wake of Russia's 4-1 blowout win over the a shell-shocked Czech side, their fans attacked some stadium stewards for reasons which are still largely unexplained:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg2UIMt9Sl0

In their official statement UEFA insists that although "some isolated violence" did occur (hard to deny when four stadium officials end up in the hospital) that "the authorities quickly and effectively gained control" of the situation.

Now it may seem to you and I like what really happened was that the thugs got tired of kicking and punching a couple hapless mopes and simply walked away, but UEFA assures us that's really not the case.

Additionally the observers assigned by Football Against Racism in Europe (aka FARE) reported a "smattering" of racial taunting aimed at the only black player on the pitch, the Czech Republic's Gebre Selassie.

It should be noted, however that FARE, which for all of it's noble aims is a very small and modestly financed outfit, had a grand total of two representatives in the stadium. That's not anything like enough pairs of eyes and ears to effectively canvas 60,000 people in a stadium.

In contrast, UEFA is neither small nor poor, and could easily afford to plant 100 observers throughout the building in an effort to make sure everything that goes on is reported. But that would require them actually WANTING to have racial taunting reported, and they most assuredly don't.

For his part, Selassie has elected not to file a complaint. UEFA is looking into the two incidents anyway.

Conversely, Italy's Mario Balotelli has in fact filed a complaint about being subjected to "monkey chants" during his team's match with Spain. To their everlasting credit, a Spanish fan group has stepped forward and admitted that "about 200" Spain fans were involved. They're cooperating with authorities in an effort to identify those involved.

So we'll see what happens on today's march. Polish authorities are assuring everyone that they're "fully prepared" to deal with whatever happens, which is certainly a good thing.

However, if the worst should come to pass and things get out of control, the photos of a couple thousand helmeted Polish riot police beating down an angry mob of inebriated Russians on the streets of Warsaw aren't likely to make UEFA very happy.

Yet as bad as all of that might turn out- and here's hoping for a calm and peaceful march, although one way to ensure that will be if someone can persuade the Russians not to carry those "Empire Flags" that were seen at the Czech Republic match; in the complicated political history of Eastern Europe carrying one of those through the streets of Warsaw is like waving a Swastika in front of a synagogue - it's the people at FIFA who are more nervous than anyone.

As I've written previously, the elephant in the room in all of this is Russia 2018.

If putting Euro 2012 in Poland and the Ukraine was stupid, putting the World Cup in Russia is just short of insane.

For years FIFA gleefully kicked England around over "hooliganism", going so far as to ban UK fans from traveling to matches in Europe. Which was very enjoyable; they really hate England.

But Russia is ten times scarier, and their racist fan behavior is even more egregious than in the Ukraine.

The fact is that after the Russians got done bribing the living snot out of FIFA's ExCo and getting a World Cup everyone suddenly noticed that Russia is a really lousy place for it.

Qatar has gotten much more attention. (Doha was just rejected by the IOC for the 2020 Olympic Games because they decided the heat there in the Summer would be detrimental to the athletes health. Apparently the IOC doesn't believe that immense flying air conditioners can really cool an entire country. Go figure.)

But Russia is in six years. In any case no one has yet come up with giant flying machines that will stop fan violence. It still has to be done the old fashioned way, with teargas and riot clubs.

So the biggest fear in international soccer circles is the scenario whereby Russian fans cause enough violence and drunken obnoxiousness that the somnambulent world footballing media suddenly notices that in six years the World Cup is going to the place where these hooligans have come from.

That will put Russia squarely in the spotlight and people will finally start asking questions which FIFA is trying desperately to avoid.