Richard Sutcliffe: The Russian tide of hooliganism and racism may be turned back

It may be difficult to imagine now but there was a time when it was not just the doom-mongers who were confidently predicting that Euro '96 would turn into some sort of bloodbath.

The rationale behind such thinking seemed sound; basically England's hooligans had such a long charge sheet that the likely visit of so many like-minded souls from across Europe would be just too tempting an opportunity for a punch-up.

The riot at Lansdowne Road, Dublin that forced the abandonment of the friendly against the Republic of Ireland in 1995 only served to strengthen the impending sense of doom, as bizarrely did the alleged criminal damage caused by a few of Terry Venables's players on a Cathay Pacific jet ahead of the tournament – an incident that prompted several psychologists to claim it would encourage some fans to ape their heroes and turn violent once the football got underway.

As we all know, of course, Euro '96 turned out to be nothing of the sort with the tournament proving to be a watershed moment for English football.

It changed forever the way the nation supported its football team, as can be seen every time England play at Wembley as thousands of families – who 15 years ago were notable only by their absence from the national stadium – make their way to the game safe in the knowledge that the chances of witnessing any hooliganism are minimal.

To this column, that owes everything to what happened during three glorious weeks in the summer of 1996 when football really did come home as supporters in this country embraced visitors like never before.

'Legacy' seems to be the buzzword in the corridors of power in football since the announcement of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts last week and I can think of no more positive a consequence of staging a major tournament than the sea-change brought about in English football by Euro '96.

The atmosphere at Wembley may have suffered as a result of that transformation, but if that is the price to pay for an end to the type of behaviour that used to sour the enjoyment of an England game to so many then so be it.

Writing as someone who loves visiting Russia so much that my stag do was held in the wonderful city of Moscow a couple of years ago, it is therefore this column's fervent hope that we will all be talking about such a positive legacy in the wake of the 2018 World Cup being staged in the country.

Russian football is, not to put too fine a point on it, at the sort of crossroads that will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Eighties as a football fan in this country.

Hooliganism is rife, with the sort of large-scale pitched battles that used to rage on the English terraces still a depressingly common sight in Russia.

At one game between Spartak Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg a couple of years ago, for instance, so many fans were involved in the fighting that the police arrested a staggering 659 people.

To put this figure into context, a total of 2,507 fans were arrested in all four English divisions during the entire 2009-10 season.

A reminder of the threat posed by hooligans to Russian football came just this week when thugs halted a Champions League match by throwing flares on to the pitch.

Travelling Spartak Moscow supporters were the guilty party in this instance as fireworks and flares from their section of MSK Zilnia's ground forced the referee to take the players off the field for 20 minutes.

The other major problem facing football behind the old Iron Curtain is racism, just as it was in this country during the Seventies and Eighties.

This was evident just a few months ago when Lokomotiv Moscow fans unfurled a huge banner reading 'Thanks, West Brom' to mark the Baggies' signing striker Peter Odemwingie from their club.

And just to make sure everyone got the shameful point about a player who was born in Uzbekistan of a Russian mother and a Nigerian father, the Lokomotiv racists included a picture of a banana on the banner.

As with the hooliganism that blights Russian football right now, this past week has also brought a reminder of how tense race relations are in the country with Tuesday seeing around 1,000 Spartak supporters clash with ethnic workers in Moscow during a protest that blocked one of the capital's main roads for an hour.

The fans were protesting about the murder of 28-year-old Yegor Sviridov, a Spartak extremist described by the racist Movement Against Illegal Immigration as, 'A member of the right'.

He had been shot shot three days earlier in a clash with men from the Russian Caucasus and the aim of the protestors, who chanted racist slogans throughout, was to force the local police to investigate more thoroughly.

Clearly, Russia has many issues to address in the coming seven-and-a-half years before the World Cup arrives.

New airports have to be built, along with roads, stadiums and hotels. The total cost is expected to be 10bn with Oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich expected to pick up a share of the tab.

It sounds like a lot of money. But if the 2018 World Cup can do for Russian football what Euro '96 did for us in this country then it will be not only be money well spent but also a vindication of FIFA's decision to take the World Cup to virgin territory.