The battered image of football in 2018 World Cup hosts Russia was further tarnished Thursday by the latest shocking outbreak of hooliganism which saw a cup match suspended when Spartak Moscow fans let off flares, clashed with police and hurled seats.
The disgrace at Spartak’s away Russian Cup match at second tier outfit Shinnik Yaroslavl on Wednesday came almost at the same moment as UEFA punished its Moscow rivals CSKA for the racist abuse by fans of Manchester City star Yaya Toure.
"Everyone now understands: if this mayhem created by the fans is not ended then it is going to be the end of football in our country," top sports daily Sport Express said in an article headlined "Either them (the hooligans) or football."
This incident has highlighted the extent of the hooliganism problem that Russia must solve ahead of its hosting of the World Cup in 2018, with hard core fan groups showing more interest in causing trouble than football.
Thousands of Spartak fans made the four-hour journey east of Moscow to Yaroslavl in the middle of the week for the fourth round cup tie, in an apparent coordinated bid to take advantage of laxer security measures at lower division clubs.
Even before the match started, dozens of fans set off flares and threw smoke bombs as they chanted Spartak's name. Pictures also showed one fan holding a Nazi banner.
The situation worsened in the second half of the game itself when fans clashed with helmeted OMON anti-riot police who entered the stands. The fans then ripped out dozens of seats and hurled them onto the pitch.
The referee suspended the game in the 53rd minute, ordering the players into the dressing room. Police then brought some order by bringing in a water cannon truck that fired a jet of water into the stands.
After a 20-minute pause, the match was re-started with Spartak scoring and winning 1-0. Some 78 people were arrested, regional police spokesman Alexander Shikhanov told the RIA Novosti news agency.
Police said the flares had been smuggled into the stadium in plaster casts for purported injuries and in "intimate places" that were not searched.
'We have gone backwards'
In a statement, Spartak sought to distance itself from any responsibility for the violence, saying that security and checks at the Shinnik stadium had been inadequate.
"Our club cannot take on the role of the state. We cannot make arrests and put the criminals in prison," Russia's most successful club said, calling on its fans to beware of provocations.
Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko condemned the violence and indicated it was time to grapple with the problem of the hard core football fan clubs seen as being at the origin of the problems.
"They've been skating on thin ice for some time... It's clear that this alarms us. Five or seven years ago we cleared this up a bit but now we are going backwards," he told the Interfax news agency.
Symbolically, the fan violence erupted just as UEFA announced a partial stadium ban for CSKA Moscow after racist abuse of Manchester City's Toure in a Champions League match last week.
"Alas, we have got so accustomed to deviating from the norms of civilised society, that we no longer see, hear, or notice this. But it hits foreigners in the eyes," said Sport Express.
The incident in Yaroslavl comes after Russia this summer passed a new law on football fan behaviour aiming to quell the problem ahead of the World Cup.
The law, which foresees fines and bans from sports events of up to seven years, is not due to come into force until January.
Yaroslavl police have opened a probe into vandalism that could lead to jail terms of up to three years.
Wednesday’s crowd trouble was among the most serious in Russia since a notorious incident in 2012 when Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper Anton Shunin sustained eye injuries after being hit in the face by a firecracker during a match with Zenit St Petersburg.