MARIUPOL: At the main football stadium in Moscow-controlled Mariupol, stickers of the local Ukrainian team are still visible, but armed football ultras from Russia now patrol the stands.
The logo of FC Mariupol – a seagull and an anchor on an orange and blue background, with the name of the city spelled in Ukrainian – has been partly scraped off on one dugout.
The overgrown stadium has a hole in its roof and bullets litter its athletics track.
A year after the port city fell to Moscow following a brutal siege, the stadium has a huge banner that reads “GLORY TO RUSSIA”, with a Russian and Soviet flag flying over it.
It has been covered in symbols of Russian football clubs – from Moscow’s CSKA to Saint Petersburg’s Zenit.
They were mostly brought here by football ultras who formed a fighting unit – the “Espanola” – to join Moscow’s offensive.
Based in Mariupol, they train on wild beaches on the Azov Sea outside the vastly destroyed city.
Inspired by British hooliganism, Russia’s ultra scene started in the 1990s and its adherents have a particularly fierce reputation.
The members of Espanola say they number around 600.
One of them, Mikhail – codename “Pitbull” – said they had put their rivalries from back home aside to fight for Russia.
“In civilian life, we fought each other,” the Zenit fan said, holding a kalashnikov and with “Espanola” tattooed on his shaved skull.
“But in the trenches, we are shoulder to shoulder.”
As nationalists that have historically been suspicious of the Kremlin, the fighters insisted to AFP they were fighting for the Russian nation, not the authorities.
But not all of Russia’s ultra football fans – known for their far-right views – have joined Moscow’s ranks.
The community was split in 2014 when the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv began – and when some sided with Ukraine.