Russia scores own goal after racism row casts shadow over World Cup draw

Russia scores own goal after racism row casts shadow over World Cup draw
By Alec Luhn in St Petersburg and Jamie Doward
Saturday 25 July 2015

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Outgoing Fifa head Sepp Blatter, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

It was not what the Kremlin had hoped for when it won the right to stage the 2018 World Cup. Russia had been expecting to bask in football glory this weekend, with President Vladimir Putin playing master of ceremonies in St Petersburg for the preliminary draw for the competition.

Instead a toxic row about the racism of Russian football fans cast a shadow over the gala event – an argument that quickly sucked in an exotic cast of characters including a beauty queen, the UN and a former British government minister.

The seeds of acrimony were sown earlier in the week after Ghanaian-born midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong, who grew up in Tottenham, north London, and plays for Russian side FC Ufa, was banned for two games for raising a middle finger in response to what he said were monkey chants from fans of the opposing side, Spartak Moscow.

After the local football authorities failed to take action against Spartak, saying they had no evidence of racist behaviour, Frimpong tweeted that, while he had “no problems” with his ban, “for the Russian FA to say they didn’t hear or see any evidence of racism is beyond a joke”. He added: “It is not saying there ain’t racism in England, of course, but not to this crazy extent.”

The comments were the cue for a concerted but clumsy attempt at damage limitation from Russian officialdom that seemed only to make things worse. “It doesn’t represent a dominant mindset of our society,” Russian organising committee head Alexei Sorokin said. “It’s just these outbreaks, and they’ve become more scarce now.”

The country’s sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, declared that “racism in football is a problem not only in Russia” but promised that “violators will not go unpunished” thanks to new match observers and toughened sanctions for racism.

Russian football fans were left distinctly unimpressed by the response. “How the Frimpong case was dealt with shows that denial is still the answer of Russian authorities when they are confronted with racist incidents, and they see the problem as attacks on Russia’s image or attempts to question their right to host the World Cup, which is not the case,” said Pavel Klymenko of the Fare network, which fights discrimination in football.

Robert Ustian, a Football Supporters Europe committee member who founded the group CSKA Fans Against Racism, said the reaction of the Russian authorities was worthy only of “shame” and provided a “great example of how not to fight against racism”.

“Repeating again and again that there’s a problem in other countries … it’s absolutely right that there’s a problem in other countries … but we are the ones who will host the World Cup, and we will be in the focus of the mainstream media, and they will not let us sweep that under the carpet,” he said.

The response by the Russian authorities also seems to have been judged inadequate by the Brazilian footballer Hulk. The striker, who plays for Zenit St Petersburg, was due to attend the draw but pulled out after declaring that he encountered racism in “almost every game” he plays in Russia. Fifa cited “club commitments” as the reason for his absence, but few were swayed by the explanation.

Hulk’s absence compounded a week of PR disasters for the Kremlin which included the winner of the Russian Premier League’s beauty contest, CSKA Moscow fan Olga Kuzkova, being stripped of her “Miss Charming” title after it emerged that she had posed in front of neo-Nazi graffiti, worn shirts bearing far-right symbols and posted racist photo memes. To add to the discomfort, there was a declaration from Yury Boychenko, an anti-discrimination chief at the UN, that there was “a lack of understanding by officials in Russia of what racism is”.

In contrast, a recent online poll of Russian football fans found three-quarters believe racism is a problem in the game, and one that appears to be becoming increasingly serious. A recent report by Fare and the Moscow-based Sova Centre catalogued 99 racist and far-right displays in stadiums and 21 racially motivated attacks by Russian football fans during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. The Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy told the Observer that it now warns African immigrants to avoid metro lines and areas around stadiums on game days.

The former Football Association chairman and Labour minister Lord Triesman said Russia’s inability to root out racism would make fans think twice about attending the 2018 competition. “The idea that you can have a country in which it’s entirely commonplace for people to jeer and make unpleasant responses to a player because he’s a black player should not be part of our world,” Triesman said.

Putin, however, was determined not to allow the row to overshadow the draw. After taking to the stage to Pink’s song Let’s Get This Party Started, he declared that the 2018 World Cup would be “a good chance to show an open, multi-faceted Russia”.

Source: The Observer UK