Russia has chosen its most majestic city for the curtain raiser to the 2018 World Cup, but allegations of racism may overshadow this weekend’s preliminary draw in St. Petersburg.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and FIFA chief Sepp Blatter will both be attending what promises to be a spectacular show at the 18th century Konstantin Palace on Saturday.
However, football’s governing body is asking questions about Russia’s willingness to stamp out racist abuse in its domestic league, after Ghanaian footballer Emmanuel Frimpong claimed he was subjected to monkey chants from Spartak Moscow fans during the opening of the Russian Premier League season last Friday.
The Russian Football Union’s disciplinary committee found there was no evidence of racism and banned the Ufa player for two matches for reacting with a rude gesture.
While Frimpong accepted he was wrong to react to the Spartak fans, he expressed alarm at the finding.
“For the Russian FA to say they didn’t hear or see any evidence of racism is beyond a joke,” he wrote on his Twitter page, referring to the Russian Football Union.
FIFA has asked the Russian ruling body to hand over its report into the incident by Tuesday, including a justification for its decision.
“Of course with the World Cup happening in this country there is a lot of focus on Russia and therefore we are as well,” FIFA’s sustainability chief Frederico Addiechi told a press conference in St. Petersburg on Thursday.
“We are following with a lot of interest what is going on and we are following this case in particular.”
The Frimpong case is not an isolated incident in Russia.
A February report by anti-discrimination group FARE and the Moscow-based Sova Center documented 99 incidents of racist and far-right displays by football fans between May 2012 and May 2014.
On Monday, Brazilian striker Hulk told reporters he encounters racism in almost every game in Russia, and in response to the Frimpong incident he expressed disappointment that no-one from the Spartak team condemned “these racist actions.”
Even these comments from the striker, who plays for Russian league champion Zenit St. Petersburg, attracted criticism.
According to Russian media reports, the Russian Football Union’s honorary president Vyacheslav Koloskov said: “It’s definitely not Hulk’s business. His task – to go on the field and score goals.”
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko – a member of FIFA’s executive committee – also appeared to downplay the issue, telling the TASS news agency the incident should not be “inflated into a big scandal.”
Hulk had been named in the team of draw assistants for Saturday’s event, which also included the likes of Brazilian great Ronaldo, Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, Fabio Cannavaro of Italy and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, but FIFA said Friday due to his club commitments the Zenit star had been replaced by former Russia captain Alexey Smertin.
Russia’s football authorities have said they are doing everything to eradicate racism, but Yuri Boychenko – chief of the anti-discrimination section of the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights – said more needs to be done.
“It is a behavioral problem. It is a societal problem. In Russia, indeed we have also noticed there is no understanding of what racism means,” Boychenko told reporters at FIFA’s Sustainability Program launch on Thursday ahead of the preliminary draw – which sets out qualifying groups for the six confederations.
“The authorities here should recognize there is a problem and I believe the recognition is coming.”
CSKA fan Robert Ustian is doing what he can to expedite the process through social media, with his grassroots #CSKAFansAgainstRacism campaign.
Ustian set up the online initiative in September last year, after his beloved Moscow club was forced to play to empty stadiums due to several incidents of apparent racism. European football’s ruling body UEFA had imposed blanket bans on supporters as punishment for racist displays.
“We are perceived in the world, not as the club which holds the UEFA Cup (CSKA won the second-tier European tournament in 2005), but as the main source of the racism,” Ustian told CNN.
“How can a club, coming originally from the Red Army which lost millions of people and played a decisive role in perhaps saving the world against fascism, how can we have all of those dirty things in our terraces?”
Ustian says his campaign not only gives the silent majority a platform to stand up against racism, but also to educate people about the meaning of the Celtic crosses and Nazi symbols that some fans bring to matches.
“Many people don’t understand what an awful job they are doing,” he says.
FIFA has announced it will boost monitoring of World Cup qualifying matches and at the tournament itself, with Addiechi saying one of the biggest challenges in fighting racism is collecting evidence of incidents.
He also acknowledged that eradicating the problem is a difficult task.
“Are we going through the World Cup to have a positive influence? Perhaps yes,” he said. “Is this going to change racism in Russia or in other parts of the world? That would be naive to think that would be the case.”
Russia has three years to at least try.
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