Bigotry rearing its ugly head in Russia as racism continues to stain the beautiful game.
In light of recent scandals surrounding Luis Suárez, John Terry and the prosecution of several football supporters in England for racist abuse, much has been made of England’s ability to deal with the topic of racism in football. However, it is important to recognise that racism is not a problem centred in and around England or the United Kingdom alone. In order to rid football of racism, work needs to be done throughout Europe and across the world to educate people and change attitudes.
English football can, at the very least, be proud of is its willingness to tackle the problem openly and head-on. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many other countries, where authorities choose instead to bury their head in the sand and deny the existence of any problem.
Chief amongst these countries, perhaps, is Russia, the world’s largest country, and the host of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Given the size of the country, its worldwide status, its economic power and the growth of football there in the last 10 years, Russia is, in many ways, an ideal choice to host the FIFA World Cup. Especially given the Russian Football Union’s pledge to spend $10 billion in order to host the tournament and develop stadia.
However, the choice of Russia as World Cup hosts was met with controversy in some circles due to the country’s recent track record in dealing with racism in football, something which has been especially problematic in the last five years, highlighted by a string of incidents.
In 2007, Brazilian striker Welliton joined Russian club Spartak Moscow. Soon after his arrival, the club was fined £13,000 after supporters at the club unveiled a banner containing the words “Monkey Go Home”, aimed at their new striker.
It may seem incredible that supporters could openly subject their own players to racist abuse, however, this was not an isolated incident.
In 2010, Lokomotiv Moscow fans celebrated Peter Odemwingie’s sale to West Brom in the transfer window with a banner containing the words “Thanks West Brom” accompanied by a picture of a banana.
Even more incredibly, in this instance, the Russian Football Union completely refused to accept the banner as being racist, despite the clear racial connotations. The club was not punished and the supporters behaviour was later justified by the RFU’s director general and head of the 2018 World Cup bid, Alexei Sorokin.
“This banner applied to a certain player and to the manner of how he played in his last matches,” said Sorokin.
“Apparently fans were not happy with the fact that he plays better for Nigeria and worse for the club. That’s why they have shown their satisfaction after he left. And there is nothing racial in it.”
Odemwingie, unsurprisingly, had a different view on the matter.
“Racism against black players is still there in the stadiums. Every time they receive the ball you can hear it. The noises. You feel it. It was more painful for me than, say, Brazilian players who are black, because I’m Russian.”
Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of the Russian SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, explained his belief that at the time, the RFU was attempting to shy away from dealing with the issue in order to limit damage to their World Cup bid.
“If everybody sees racism in this banner, including the player, it’s absurd to refuse,” said Kozhevnikova.
“The RFU simply doesn’t want to recognise that banner as a racism. According to officials, recognition of the problem will make Russia’s chances to host the World Cup uncertain. That’s a typical logic of officials but it’s senseless to refuse the problem.”
In light of the incident, and the RFU’s refusal to acknowledge it, Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup.
However, the transfer of Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos to Anzhi Makhachkala in 2011 once again led to racial tensions and forced the RFU to confront the issue.
A month after arriving in Russia, Roberto Carlos was subjected to a racist taunt by a Zenit St. Petersburg supporter, who held out a banana towards Carlos as he was taking part in a flag-raising ceremony. As a result, Zenit were fined £6,250.
Three months later, during an away match at Krylia Sovetov, a supporter threw a banana onto the pitch, next to where Roberto Carlos was standing.
Upon seeing the banana, Carlos walked off the pitch in protest, looking visibly shaken, before gesturing to the crowd that this was the second time he had received such treatment in Russia. The incident forced Roberto Carlos to consider retiring from the sport.
” ‘Stop playing’ was what went through my mind, yes. If something like this happens again I will have to make a decision.” Carlos said.
“You know when that sadness hits, that feeling of being powerless? I left there sad, hurt. [There were] so many kids there. That has to be banned from football.”
“I’m outraged by the sickening behaviour of this fan, who, in fact, insulted not only me but all the players. I hope Russian federation, UEFA and FIFA will give an adequate evaluation to this disgusting incident.”
Once again, Alexei Sorokin refused to properly condemn the behaviour of supporters and tackle the issue of racism head-on.
“Yes, there are various outbreaks and incidents. But they do not represent the overall mood in our society,” he said.
It is important to point out that Sorokin is right to say it is a small minority of Russian supporters who participate in such behaviour.
However, in six years time, Russia will be hosting the biggest football tournament in the world, hosting visitors of all races, from all over the planet. If the tournament is to be a success, Russia has to effectively deal with the underlying problem. The RFU must stop burying its head in the sand. Petty fines for the clubs involved will do little to address the actual problem and more needs to be done to educate people on why racism cannot be tolerated.
“[Russian] officials don’t understand that recognition of the problem is a step to it’s resolution” Galina Kozhevnikova concluded.
– Jason Mitchell
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonOffside