Let’s not kid ourselves. After #Sochiproblems, the annexation of Crimea, and concerns over the feasibility of Qatar 2022, a critical light will fall on Russia 2018 at some point. After Brazil 2014 finishes, and FIFA finally pulls its head out of Qatar’s ass, the soccer world will remember the Eastern European middle child and pounce with all its might.
Unfortunately for the internet and the media, pointing out the lower standards of living is out of vogue (welcome to the rest of the world America). Everyone got an earful during Sochi, and won’t be terribly interested in hearing about yellow tap water, or wolves in hotel hallways. Fortunately, Russia has a different controversy in large supply.
Players and reporters alike have condemned the epidemic of racism that plagues Russian soccer. However, despite all of the unrest surrounding racism in football, and threats made by black players to boycott, Russia deserves the chance to host World Cup all the same.
Before reading too far into bigotry in Russia, let’s just take a step back and remember that racism is an “everyone problem”, not just a “Russia problem.” The ‘90s saw more than its fair share of problems in Germany. To this day, you’ll occasionally see banners in Bundesliga stadiums with the symbol “88” on it, standing for HH (H is the eighth letter of the alphabet), or Heil Hitler. Even in this day and age, black players like Mario Balotelli are still subjected to monkey chants in in the most prestigious European leagues such as Serie A (not uncommon in Italy). Hell, just last month Japanese club Urawa Red Diamonds had to play their games behind closed doors thanks to racist banners on display during February.
That’s not to say Russia doesn’t stack up. More than a few of the run-of-the-mill incidents like banana throwing and monkey impressions have occurred over the past few years. Perhaps what’s more disturbing is that racism in Russia is so powerful that it can be overtly institutionalized. Two years ago, Zenit St. Petersburg supporters wrote an open letter to the club proclaiming that they weren’t racist, but that they felt the absence of black (and gay) players at the club was a tradition. Usually, if you have to attach the phrase “I’m not racist, but” to the beginning of a sentence… you’re better off keeping your mouth shut.
Are some countries worse than others in this context? Sure. But the point is that racism is happening everywhere, no matter how developed the area. I don’t want to turn this column into a place where I just crap on FIFA… but the organization and its subsidiaries don’t seem terribly interested in stamping this bigotry out anywhere.The fines handed out for racist chanting at games, racist banners, etc. have been relatively trivial, and criticism is met with an aloof attitude that would impress even a certain Russian President/Bond villain. FIFA didn’t even speak up when, in 2013, FC Copenhagen moved to ban fans with un-Danish sounding last names from their Champions League group games.
There’s no doubt that in the next few years people will want to point fingers at Russia and talk about how much more enlightened a World Cup in Western Europe would be. Thanks to east/west tensions, that’s just the way its gonna go. But when it does, it’s our responsibility to take a step back, and remember that racism exists everywhere, and not just in Russia. It might also be beneficial to remember that FIFA has an enormous task in eradicating a prejudice as old as race itself from a game as international as soccer.
I’m almost as cynical as they come. However, when it comes to the World Cup. I’m as idealistic as 6-year-old dressed as a Disney princess. In my mind, bringing people from all cultures together in one place, regardless of propensity for bias, does more good than it does harm. Is it Russia’s responsibility when 2018 rolls around to make sure that everyone of all races and creeds are welcome? Yes. Is it our responsibility to give them the chance to do so and prove themselves, especially when the west is just as guilty of their crimes? You bet.
Photo: Kum Fei Wong/Digital Mirage Pte Ltd