Crimea’s last Ultras

Words & Images by Paul Stafford Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 5, 2018
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“I like to drink, and I like to fight.” This was how Maksim Agapov introduced himself pitch-side during the first half of TSK Simferopol’s latest home game in the Crimean Premier League. Striding around in wide sunglasses and a beanie, he was not supposed to be there, having climbed through the fence and onto the pitch.

Stadion Lokomotiv was once the home of Crimea’s most successful football club. The stadium feels bigger than it really is, thanks to the discoloured athletics track around the outside. The giant clusters of floodlights at each corner are the most Soviet thing since Joseph Stalin.

“We are Ultras of Tavriya,” he announced, referring to the club’s pre-Russian annexation name Tavriya Simferopol. He beat his chest with a clenched right fist, the fingers of which were stained a light tobacco tar yellow.

Maksim turned to the pitch and shouted encouragement at the players lining up for a corner. Then he addressed a small gaggle of supporters behind the goal, no more than ten strong.

“TAVRIIIIYAAAAA.”

He received his desired response, along the lines of “Oooh-ra,” or “Let’s all get barium enemas after the game.” It sounded aptly maniacal for a group of Ultras, yet somewhat lacklustre in the vast, empty space of the stadium. It was certainly not in keeping with the strength-in-numbers ferocity with which such outfits are normally imbued. But at this low-turnout league match they were the only source of off-pitch noise.

The stands of Stadion Lokomotiv are open to the elements. With the sun out and free entry to the game, one could only assume that the roughly 5% capacity was a good turnout. “If we charged an entry fee nobody would come any more,” said Aleksandr Haydash, the director general of the club before the game.

“Oh shit, I hate this asshole,” Maksim said, ducking out of sight as the TSK’s groundsman approached.

“How many times have I told you? Get off the pitch Maksim, you’re distracting the players.” The groundman’s face was a healthy beetroot. Maksim muttered something then gambolled back to his cronies.

Twenty minutes into the match, a group of students entered the stadium and began an organised chant that drowned out the Ultras. They were supposed to be the loudest element of any game, and they normally were. Now they looked askance, nonplussed. Maksim soon mustered a spirited counter.

Low turnouts are normal for TSK Simferopol and other teams in Crimea now, but that was not always the case. Tavriya are the only club, aside from Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk, to have won the Ukrainian Premier League.

Tavriya Simferopol Football Club was formed in 1958. Crimea had been gifted to the Ukraine SSR (the other USSR) by Nikita Khrushchev four years earlier, so the team had always played in the Ukrainian League until 2014.

“I remember when the stands here used to be full every week. You couldn’t get a seat. The atmosphere…” Maksim broke off, lost somewhere between anger and nostalgia. Unlike many Ultras in Russia, who were career hooligans first and football fans second, Maksim was reduced now to just a loyal fan, lamenting the days of competitive football, and even more competitive fan rivalries.

“Ronaldinho has played here in a friendly,” Maksim said after the match.

A heavyset fellow from the small band of Ultras had come down onto the pitch after the final whistle and contested this. “He never made it off the bench,” he said. “They should have framed that seat though. It’s Simferopol’s most famous ass print.”

Those were the glory days, when Tavriya made it to the Champions League and, a few seasons later, the Intertoto Cup. In the 2010-2011 season they made their maiden Europa League appearance, losing 6-1 on aggregate to Bayer Leverkusen. Then, in March 2014, Crimea was annexed from Ukraine by Russia, and the peninsula’s beautiful game became a casualty of war.

Suddenly without a league, Tavriya was forced to disband and TSK Simferopol was the barely concealed repackaging that resulted. Similar things happened at other Crimean clubs like FC Sevastopol. The clubs initially planned to join the Russian League in 2014, but UEFA intervened. Ukraine would never support the switch, and all parties had to agree before a club switched leagues.

UEFA’s solution was to create an independent Crimean League. The result was a huge cut in funding, a loss of European competition opportunities, and the general neutering of grassroots football in Crimea. Although UEFA has promised funding, there remains no way for it to reach Crimea due to the international sanctions imposed after the annexation.

This move allows football clubs in Crimea to survive, albeit without any hope of the sort of competition to which football teams like Tavriya were recently accustomed.

“If we were allowed to play in the Russian League maybe something would improve for us,” says Denys Holyado, TSK Simferopol’s diminutive, yet scrappy, captain. “I just hope we’ll have the chance to play against European clubs again soon.”

While the general feeling among footballing professionals in Crimea is that they will join the Russian League eventually, nothing can happen while Russia is on its best footballing behaviour.

“Russia was already nervous about losing the right to host the World Cup, so they wouldn’t have done anything to upset FIFA before that.” said Anton Naumenko, TSK’s official photographer.

Anton was keen to point out evidence of a stronger side to the Ultras predating the annexation. Wandering around the ground there are signals everywhere of an increasingly familiar side to the Ultras that is commonly singled out by the media, such as the Neo-Nazism and racism.

Graffiti covered the walls near TSK’s training pitches. One, lauding the “SimferHools,” seemed innocuous, with a juvenile “We are top of the league” scrawled across it. However, a “White Boys” mural contained plenty of the Neo-Nazi symbology one has come to associate with many of the more retrograde groups of Ultras across Russia; those who organise mass brawls in forests and go out into the street with the express intent to harm immigrants.

Hooliganism in Russia is largely a post-Soviet phenomenon, modelled initially on the hooligans of Britain and Germany, but then super-charged by the support of unscrupulous Russian politicians. “It is a form of respect that they chose to hit you British,” said Maksim.

Of course, there were footy louts well before this time; Simferopol has long had an association with hooligans. The Bolsenov Brothers were famous locally for running onto the pitch of one game in the early Soviet era, kicking the opponent’s goalkeeper in the stomach then punching the referee in the mouth. The same sources suggest Simferopol’s players would turn up to games drunk and get into fights, incensing rival fans to invade the pitch and exact retribution.

Considering this active past versus the deflated state of the Ultras in Simferopol, one would assume something drastic has happened to deplete their numbers. When Russia invaded Crimea, Tavriya did not just disband and reform; it split, with many of the former club’s players, management and fans fleeing across the new, unofficial border to Kherson on the Ukrainian side. There they formed a new Tavriya that currently plays in the third tier of Ukrainian football.

In the latest development, this new Tavriya is one of the 35 teams accused of match fixing by Ukrainian authorities, in a seismic blow to the country’s football at all echelons. Although this does not touch on the Ultras, it does illustrate the pervasive nature of corruption that the region faces in its footballing institutions. With Ultras being openly backed by some clubs in Ukraine and Russia, this only muddies an already waterlogged pitch.

Back in the winter of 2013-2014, before the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainians clashed with the government and many were killed in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine at the time, was supported by Russia. While many groups of Ultras in Ukraine held back from denouncing Russia directly, many, like the Tavriya Simferopol group, made statements that they were infuriated by any and all attacks on Ukrainian citizens.

The vk.com page (much like Facebook) for the Ultras in Kherson is mainly concerned with decidedly militant pleas for money to help fight in the Donetsk region against Russian-backed separatists. This suggests why those left behind in Crimea now keep a low profile.

This turned Russian politicians against the Crimean and Ukrainian Ultras at a time where it was popular politically to be an Ultra in that country. There are plenty of links suggesting that Russian politicians had covertly signed up groups of Ultras across the country to help them in matters of security, in return for turning a blind eye to some of their more egregious hooliganery.

Further suggestions of these political links came in the form of the chartered plane to Marseille which carried the Ultras in 2016. This was purportedly at the behest of Alexander Shprygin, who was an official member of Russia’s Euro 2016 delegation and who has been variously photographed with Putin and many of the Kremlin’s top brass.

The post-Marseille response in 2016 was mixed: The Russian government backed away from their support of the Ultras in the form of new “Acts of Terrorism” rules, which will brand any football violence during the World Cup an act of terrorism.

But notably, the Deputy Chairman of Russia’s State Duma, Igor Lebedev, was unambiguously congratulatory about the unprovoked attacks on unsuspecting England fans. Thus we have the exact same ambiguity that dressed the Russian response to their invasion of Crimea and support of separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Russia may have distanced itself from much controversy of late, but as the Donbas war rolls on, another arena in which Russia has kept a lower profile lately, plenty of photos have emerged of pro-Ukrainian groups of fighters brandishing Tavriya Ultras flags and iconography alongside Kalashnikovs. This will not have gone unnoticed in Russia.

Which brings us back to the opening question, how do you stop the Ultras? The answer, in the case of the Crimean Ultras seems to be, invade their country and take away their football. Then again, you could just take away their overt political support.

While the World Cup will be watched from Crimea with only one of their two recent de-facto ruling countries in the competition, there will be plenty of people, like Maksim, hoping for the World Cup to be over, in the hope that Russia will have less worry about accepting Crimean teams into their league. That is the stepping stone back to competitive football for them.

The recent completion of a new terminal at Simferopol airport, and the bridge that links Crimea to Russia, has only solidified links, and distanced the hope of reconciliation with Ukraine. All the while, western powers have done little more than frown and admonish.

While boards of directors at Crimean teams highly anticipate joining the Russian league next season or sometime soon after, whether that would also spark rejuvenation for Crimean Ultras remains to the seen.

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