With all the outrage surrounding the 2022 Qatar World Cup, it’s easy to forget that, in just three years, Russia will be hosting the 2018 World Cup. Yes, the same Russia where players regularly get racially abused at Russian Premier League games for sport. That should be comforting to players and fans, particularly those who may be of a similar hue to those who get abused on a weekly basis. I mean, welcome to Russia 2018, amirite? Save up for your bananas.
Zenit St. Petersburg’s Brazilian striker Hulk said yesterday that he faces racial abuse in “almost every game” in the Russian league. That’s a hell of a statement and, to be fair, a remarkable level of consistency and dedication from Russian fans.
“I must say that almost every game I see this happening,” he said to The Associated Press. “I used to get angry, but now I see this doesn’t help, so I just send a kiss to our fans and try not to get angry.”
That’s depressing. That’s also what’s been going down in the nation that will be hosting the next World Cup.
This isn’t new for Russia. In fact, Russia came out a clear winner in our first Racism Power Rankings last year purely on merit. Russian fans racially abusing Hulk featured prominently in those rankings, too. Remember, they’re consistent and dedicated.
Late last week, former Arsenal player Emmanuel Frimpong — now playing for Ufa in the Russian Premier League — was also allegedly racially abused by Spartak Moscow fans. He responded with some words and a brisk middle finger.
Later, he took to Twitter to express his frustration.
Surely Frimpong’s own team would back him, if it wasn’t in Russia. Remember, this is Russia, home of plausible deniability. Ufa general director Shamil Gazizov essentially excused Spartak and told Frimpong to suck it up, because that’s how Russian soccer deals with racial abuse.
“It was an unfortunate incident,” Gazizov stated. “There were people who could have shouted things. These are emotions which go away after the game. We are partners with [Spartak] and are on good terms.
Partners in what, exactly? Partners in ignoring racial abuse? OK, then.
Gasizov forged ahead. “What Frimpong did was wrong. Sometimes you even have to hold back the tears and just put up with it.”
This reaction, unsurprisingly, didn’t sit well with many, including the Ghana Football Association (GFA). (Frimpong, on paper at least, is a Ghanaian international.) Here’s an excerpt from the GFA statement condemning the incident:
While we do not condone Frimpong’s reaction to the racist abuse he suffered, it beats our imagination that his club UFA criticized the Ghanaian player without condemning the Spartak Moscow supporters who provoked him with this despicable racist abuse.
The act of singling out Frimpong for criticism, when he was clearly provoked by these money chants while the perpetrators of the act have been let off, indelibly stain football’s tenets and principles.
Such actions only serve as ammunition to the perpetrators of this crime to return to the stadia to subject black and African footballers to more racist abuse.
Frimpong’s club’s relative indifference to the alleged abuse, however, isn’t shocking when you realize that Russian soccer authorities effectively read from the same script. Russian Football Union (RFU) general secretary Anatoly Vorobyov made a bunch of vague proclamations about the Frimpong incident. “Racism,” he noted, ”is a disgusting thing, which we have not been able to fully stamp out.”
He continued: “The virus that is racism is worse than the virus that is ebola. Unfortunately it seems that we are unable to find a remedy for it.”
Worse than ebola? Poor, helpless Russia. Well, good thing Russia has a plan. According to Gasizov, “the clubs should introduce more effective schemes to work with the supporters surrounding this issue. The fight against racism should be a priority for work carried out by the RFU.” Apparently, just like the scheme Frimpong’s own club just employed: brushing aside reality and acting helpless. That scheme seems to be working out well.
So here we are, three years away from Russia hosting the World Cup and Russian authorities are saying that they can’t find a remedy for racial abuse in stadiums. Add the statement of defeat released by Russia’s Local Organizing Committee (LOC) for the 2018 World Cup in connection with the Frimpong incident:
“Racism has no place in the modern world, least of all anywhere near a football pitch. We are confident that the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, in particular, can act as a catalyst to positively change the mindset and behavior for all members of football community over the next three years.”
Said another way, Russia’s saying there’s not much it can do to effectively combat racism in stadiums, so it’s taking the asinine position that hosting the World Cup will help sort out its terrible racism problem. Imaginative. Actually, not only is it not imaginative, it’s a return to five years ago, before Russia was even awarded the World Cup.
Back in October 2010, Russian-raised Nigerian international Peter Odemwingie left Lokomotiv Moscow for West Brom. You may remember Lokomotiv fans thanked West Brom for signing Odemwingie with a banana banner.
Then-RFU director general and Russia World Cup bid chief Alexei Sorokin responded by saying, “In Russia, ‘to get a banana’ means to fail a test somewhere.” You see, Sorokin would have you believe that banana symbolism is simply getting lost in translation. “Apparently fans were not happy with the fact that he plays better for Nigeria and worse for the club,” he added. “That’s why they have shown their satisfaction after he left. And there is nothing racial in it.”
If you listen to players still plying their trade in Russia, not much has changed; not from the fans, and not from Russia’s soccer authorities. Almost five years have passed since Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup, and players are still regularly getting racially abused in soccer environments.
Exploring how a nation where monkey chants are a featured part of one’s game day experience can ease its way to hosting a tournament that’s supposed to welcome fans from around the world, and teams from browner parts of the world, is necessary if folks are really serious about justice and reforms within FIFA. But noting the message Russian soccer officials have been sending through their actions, not words, for years is just as important. As long as no one outside of Russia pays any mind to discrimination in Russian stadiums, all Russia needs to do is pay lip service to the ebola-like scourge that is racism.
And that’s exactly what Russia’s been doing via half-assed responses to incidents. Quite clearly, no one really cares that Hulk gets racially abused almost every time he steps onto a field to play in the country that will be hosting the next World Cup. That’s not just Russia’s fault; that’s the global soccer community’s fault.