Knowing the Score: Terrorism and Hooliganism at the 2018 Russia World Cup


An estimated 1 million football fans are expected to travel to Russia for the World Cup in June and July, while more than 3 billion people are expected to watch the event on television. While security was managed effectively during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the World Cup poses a significantly more complex security challenge for Russia, not least as it is spread across 11 cities. Moreover, the World Cup is a target for both football hooligans and militant groups like Islamic State (‘IS’) due to the high-profile nature of the event.

Russian hooligans have been involved in several violent confrontations with foreign football fans at the European Championships in 2012 and 2016, and have promised similar violence at the World Cup. Additionally, following the release of several IS posters indicating an intent to target the World Cup, authorities are concerned about the threat posed by terrorism. Yet despite the logistical challenges posed by the scale of the event, the Russian security forces will seek to mitigate the risks of terrorism and hooliganism at the tournament.


In the build up to the World Cup, international and domestic commentators have focused on the threat of hooliganism. Football hooligans (or “ultras”), are particularly active in Russia, with several large groups in Moscow and St. Petersburg. They are well-organised, trained in martial arts and abide by a strict program of sobriety. They also have participated in, or initiated, violent confrontations with fans from other countries several times in the last few years. During the 2016 European Championship in France, for example, Russian and English hooligans instigated violent street battles throughout Marseille resulting in 557 arrests and the hospitalisation of 18 fans. The threat of Russian hooliganism has been exacerbated by statements by the Fratria and Gladiators, two organised hooligan groups (or “firms”) affiliated with FC Spartak Moscow. Both firms have stated that they are “Kremlin foot soldiers” and English fans would “100 percent be targeted” during the tournament. Declarations by Russian firms that the World Cup would be a “festival of violence”, has reinforced this threat.

The presence of Polish, German and Russian ultras in Moscow for the first round of fixtures increases the risk of football-related violence. In 2012, when Poland and Ukraine hosted the European Championship, 123 people were arrested after Russian hooligans rioted in the streets of Warsaw. Violence between Polish, German and Russian fans is often rooted in historical tensions, particularly the Second World War. English football fans face a heightened threat of violence due to the notorious level of hooliganism in English football in the 1980s and 1990s. Confrontations with English hooligans are seen by international firms as a way to reinforce their reputation, and Polish, Argentinian, Russian and Ukrainian ultras have all threatened to target English fans.

An additional consideration is a recent increase in hate crimes. There are more than 150 far-right groups with an ideology of racial, ethnic and religious intolerance currently active in the country, and they are frequently linked to football hooliganism. There have been 89 incidents of racism in Russian football since 2016 – specifically targeting black or Muslim foreign fans, during UEFA Champions League and Europa League fixtures.


While the number of terror attacks have decreased since 2012, terrorism remains a risk to travellers in Russia. There have been seven terror attacks on public transportation systems since 2013, including the metro bombing in St. Petersburg in April 2017 that killed 16 people and three bombings that killed 42 people in Volgograd before the Sochi Winter Olympics. The most significant threat of terrorism at the World Cup is posed by IS. This has been reinforced by the release of several propaganda posters by Wafa Media Foundation, an IS-affiliated publication that frequently publishes pro-IS propaganda. IS is threatening to stage attacks in response to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. This is an attempt to portray an image of strength despite the loss of approximately 90 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria.

Since January 2017, Wafa Media Foundation has released posters urging IS supporters to attack Rostov-on-Don, threatened drone attacks at football stadiums, and published photo-shopped executions of high-profile footballers including Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Islamist militants are active in the North Caucasus, particularly in the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya, and frequently conduct low impact attacks on police and military checkpoints. The most powerful militant organisation in Russia, the Caucasus Emirate, has renamed itself as Vilayat Kavkaz, or  IS’s Caucasus Province, and has been responsible for the majority of attacks in the country. While attacks on security forces in the North Caucasus are highly unlikely to affect foreign nationals, the proximity of the region to World Cup venues in Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don and Sochi does somewhat increase the risk of an attack in those cities.

“The World Cup is a target for both football hooligans and militant groups, like Islamic State, due to the high-profile nature of the event.”

Limited Opportunity

Despite the intent by hooligan and militant groups to stage violent attacks during the tournament, the authorities have implemented several initiatives designed to limit the risk of attacks:

  • The government has banned the sale or consumption of alcohol near official venues and instituted comprehensive ID checks.
  • Legislation imposing harsh fines, bans and jail time for repeat offenders of hooliganism has been passed.
  • Russian authorities have imprisoned and intimidated key leaders of prominent hooligan organisations, with firms moving confrontations with rival fans to forested areas to avoid security forces.
  • Arrests of notable hooligans were followed by searches of fans’ homes by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Russian security services, and telephone calls warning high-profile leaders that they are being watched.
  • According to the head of Russia Unite fans’ union, the FSB invited leaders from prominent firms to a meeting which detailed the strict consequences for initiating violence during the tournament.

Given the current pressure on violent fan groups, coupled with the significant police deployment planned during the tournament, the likelihood of significant hooligan activity at the tournament has certainly declined.

While IS has a precedent for successfully targeting football stadiums, following a bombing attack outside the Stade de France in Paris during an international friendly in November 2015, they also made threats to both the 2016 European Championship and the 2017 Women’s European Championship, which passed without incident.

To limit the opportunity of a similar attack, Russian authorities have implemented several measures which reinforce the capabilities of Russian security forces:

  • Alongside comprehensive ID checks, the authorities have banned planes and drones near World Cup stadiums.
  • Factories that manufacture chemicals used in the production of explosives have been closed for the duration of the tournament.
  • Counter-terrorism forces will be deployed to stadiums, fan parks, public transportation networks and key locations, reducing the vulnerability to an attack.

Despite the presence of well-trained hooligans with an intent to target fans from visiting countries, and IS’s propaganda campaign declaring an intent to stage attacks at the World Cup, the Russian government has appears to have implemented methods capable of reducing the risk of hooligan or terror related violence at the tournament. The sophisticated capabilities of Russia’s security forces, coupled with the lack of successful IS attacks in the country, renders the likelihood of an attack during the World Cup low.

Stage fright: Can Russia avoid falling flat on its World Cup stage?

19:51 PM, 25 June 2018. Cosmos Arena – Samara, Russia

It’s a balmy evening in Samara and the Russian national team are on the ropes. Exhausted and desperate, the men in red know that their time in this, their domestic World Cup, is ebbing away. They have spent 90 minutes chasing shadows in the evening heat, watching on helplessly as the far superior Uruguayans have notched up a 4-0 lead. A dreary 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia, followed by a comprehensive 2-0 defeat to Egypt had left them staring at the abyss of elimination before this game even began. Now the ignominy is almost complete.

Second follows agonising second – the players, the crowd, they all know that the embarrassment is about to reach its resounding crescendo. Boos echo around the ground as the referee brings his whistle to his lips, confirming the grim reality – Russia have been dumped out the 2018 World Cup at the earliest opportunity. Babushkas bellow, grown men weep and humiliated players thump the pitch in frustration. They are a worldwide laughing stock, a national disgrace…


Football fact or football fiction? Only time will tell, however, few would truly be surprised if Russia, ranked by FIFA at the time of writing as the second-worst team in the tournament, become the only host nation after South Africa to exit a World Cup at the group stages. Indeed, according to a poll carried out by the state-funded Public Opinion Fund in April, only 4 percent of Russians actually believe that their country will be world champions come July – which equates to at least an English level of optimism before this summer’s football kicks off.

While, clearly, Russian fans and their government alike would prefer to avoid any footballing humiliation, success for Russia is significantly more likely to be measured by events off the pitch than on it. Moscow, an international pariah after events in Syria and Ukraine in recent years, knows that the tournament is a PR opportunity, a stage to boost both Russian national pride as well as striking a blow against its critics in the West. However, for that to happen, there is a lot that needs to go right and this is a World Cup where an awful lot can go wrong.

Certainly, there is a severely limited enthusiasm for this tournament from English football supporters. In many ways, Russia lost the battle for these fans’ hearts and minds a long time ago – corruption allegations surrounding the bidding process for hosting rights in 2010 embittered many, but it’s Russian hooliganism which has really poisoned attitudes, possibly indelibly. While violence in the Russia-England game during Euro 2016 may have brought the issue under the microscope, English supporters with rather longer memories will recall the events around England’s 2-1 defeat in Moscow in October 2007 when they were on the receiving end of such organised violence for the first time. Some fans have publicly stated that they wouldn’t go back to Russia again after that experience, let alone go to a tournament there.

Add this to reports of accommodation prices being hiked up some 18,000% in some host cities – the Independent noting that the ‘best value’ dwelling in glamourous Kaliningrad was a tent priced at £63 a night – and lingering concerns ranging from logistics to racism, it hardly looks like an attractive prospect. Talk of a boycott might be more or less restricted to Prince William and a few world leaders such as Polish President Andrzej Duda, but you do start to wonder who in their right mind would bother making the effort – and that is a real tragedy, both for fans who will have missed out on some of Russia’s hidden gems and for Russia’s own endeavours to soften its image.

Russia, for all of its bravado on the international stage, has a real image problem and it will have few better opportunities to fix that than hosting a World Cup. Major sporting events increasingly have become the preserve of authoritarian (or at least semi-authoritarian) states and with good reason – there’s not much more powerful or legitimising than sport when it comes to getting the international community to warm to you. Doses of sporting diplomacy have been seen from Baku to Beijing, so it’s hardly a shock that Russia would want to replicate such a successful blueprint.

The World Cup is a chance to re-set global opinion of Russia, at least to a certain extent. Countries have done a great job of this before – Germany, for instance, not just demonstrating itself to be a paragon of efficiency but also fun-loving and welcoming when it hosted the 2006 edition. While, of course, this is rather an extreme comparison considering the Germans hardly had the same level of bad blood and international criticism to counter, there is precedent for Moscow to follow. Besides, there are often a plethora of issues and negative reports heading into a major tournament like this (Brazil certainly wasn’t immune from media scrutiny in 2014, for instance) and there is often a tendency for these problems to melt away once the football starts. The global public, it shouldn’t be forgotten, have a pretty short attention span and this is something the Kremlin will be counting on.

Boris Johnson created a humongous stir when he recently suggested Putin might use the World Cup in a similar fashion to how Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympics, likening it to a propaganda circus. In response, Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said the Foreign Secretary was “poisoned with venom of hate, unprofessionalism and boorishness”. If nothing else, this exchange illustrates the extent to which diplomatic tensions have been strained heading into the tournament. Tensions are undoubtedly high and Russia has work to do to win over the world and pull off a successful PR coup.

However, a World Cup should be more than than just a PR exercise. It should create memories, inspire locals to become the next Lev Yashin or Andrei Arshavin (maybe) and make for a welcoming, positive experience for visitors and hosts alike. There is a spectre of potential misfortune which looms heavily over this World Cup and Russia will need to deliver something close to perfection to silence its doubters. If Moscow fails, it could be another missed opportunity to heal an increasingly gaping chasm that exists between it and the West.

“The World Cup is a chance to re-set global opinion of Russia, at least to a certain extent”

Fair game: Football remains a target for Russia’s cyber hackers

The 2018 World Cup in Russia will see a collision between an increasingly interconnected global game and a progressively fractured, hostile information security environment. Following concerns voiced by England’s Football Association to FIFA, the world football governing body, about the leak of sensitive anti-doping correspondence by an alleged Russia-linked hacking group, cyber security is set to be a high priority for teams competing in the summer’s showcase tournament.

At the forefront of a volatile contemporary culture of data breaches stands the cyber espionage group ‘Fancy Bears’. Claiming to stand for “fair play and clean sport”, the group is linked to multiple high-profile data breaches in both the political (seen with both the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak and the cyber-attack on French president Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 election campaign) and the sporting world.

As far as sport is concerned, Fancy Bears also have previous experience. Pertinently, a football-focused Fancy Bears leak from 2017 implicated multiple former Premier League footballers, such as Dutchman Dirk Kuyt and Argentina’s Carlos Tevez, as having therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) in the run up to the 2010 World Cup.

TUE’s, though commonly issued to authorise the use of substances otherwise banned under anti-doping regulations for the treatment of medical conditions, are the subject of a certain degree of public suspicion over their perceived ability to help athletes gain an unfair advantage – something neither Kuyt nor Tevez would have been happy to have their names associated with. That particular data breach also announced 160 failed drug tests from footballers in 2015, with four of the failed tests registered by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) according to compromised emails from the FA’s head of integrity Jenni Kennedy to FIFA. Though TUEs themselves are clearly not illegal, Fancy Bears hostile activity publicly raises questions over the security status of key governing bodies’ protection of sensitive data.

Moreover, multiple specialist cyber intelligence bodies have suggested that Fancy Bears’ use cyber-attack methods that are consistent with nation-state actors. This has fueled speculation that the group is associated with the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, acting in revenge for the banning of Russia from the summer Olympics in 2014 and Winter Games in 2018 for contravening doping laws.

Characterised as an advanced persistent threat, the group utilises a number of methods, including zero-day vulnerabilities, phishing email campaigns and malware-hosting websites disguised as news sources, with a particular focus on web-based email services. For example, compromises have in the past consisted of web-based email users receiving an email urgently requesting they change their passwords to avoid being hacked. These users were then redirected via a link to a spoofed website where their credentials, after being inputted, were stolen. Confidential data was then accessed, downloaded and distributed.

Though Fancy Bears data breaches have largely concerned controversial anti-doping practices of sports governing bodies, fears have been raised by FA chiefs over the security of networks that would be used to send emails by coaches and executives alike. There are even concerns that exist that the England camp could be unwittingly exposing tactical plans, team selections and training schedules to malicious groups. With the stakes high and data-driven analysis utilised by all teams attempting to gain a competitive advantage, poor cyber security infrastructure and resultant compromised tactical intelligence could make a genuine difference.

To attempt to mitigate the threats posed by Fancy Bears, the FA has advised that all players and staff avoid the use of public Wi-Fi networks, do not post on social media with location tags and only use equipment allocated to them that will have sophisticated anti-hacking software installed. The FA also claim their firewalls have been strengthened and key passwords encrypted.

Football, as the world’s most popular sport, mirrors an increasingly interconnected world with its continued adoption of data-driven analytics for tactical analysis (as proponents of ‘expected goals’ or ‘Xg’, a football metric which allows you to analyse and evaluate team and player performance, would attest to) and even video assisted referees (VAR) making an appearance at this summer’s tournament. However, as technology steadily creeps into the sport, the means by which to secure a team’s data, whether it relates to tactical or medical records, will only continue to come under threat. Before a football has even been kicked, the World Cup in Russia provides another high-stakes platform for the proxy-cyber cold war.

“However, as technology steadily creeps into the sport, the means by which to secure a team’s data will only continue to come under threat.”