A string of racist incidents involving Russian football fans has cast a shadow over the 2018 World Cup. But FIFA says it is ready to act.
It was ironically at a ‘friendly’ match between Russia and France in March that racist abuse from Russian supporters reared its ugly head again.
Fans in the Saint Petersburg Stadium made monkey noises and yelled racist chants at black players including N’Golo Kante, Ousmane Dembele and Paul Pogba - all of whom will line up for France at the World Cup in Russia this month.
If they were trying to psych out the opposition, it didn’t work. The visitors won the match 3-1.
FIFA fined Russia 30,000 Swiss Francs (about $39,000), taking into account “the limited number of fans involved”, but it was the third racism case this season at the ground, which will host four World Cup group games and a semi-final.
Russian Premier League club Zenit St.Petersburg was charged twice by Europe’s football authority UEFA over fan racism in Europa League games in December and March. It also counts among the clubs that still has organized far-right groups among its fans.
The national team has also been fined over the racist behaviour of its fans at the last two European Championships. But Russian police have a history of failing to act.
In 2011, when a spectator taunted Brazil’s Roberto Carlos with a banana while he was playing for Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala, local police said it wasn’t a crime. He would later walk off the pitch during a match when a banana was thrown at him. His teammates said he broke down in tears in the dressing room.
And it's not just the players who fear such incidents could happen at this month's World Cup; England defender Danny Rose said last week he had instructed his family not to travel to the tournament over fears of being racially abused.
"My dad's really upset," Rose told the London Evening Standard. "He said he may never get a chance again to come and watch me in a World Cup."
FIFA under pressure
Piara Powar, head of London-based FARE Network, football’s major anti-discrimination advocacy body, told SBS News: “The biggest impact around [racist incidents] has been on the image of Russia in the international media … raising concerns over what, as organisers, they are doing to prevent such situations, and their capacity or willingness to respond and address these.”
Racism won't just be a problem for the host country though; sport's international governing body FIFA will be under the spotlight more than ever before.
The Russia-France incident came not long after FIFA copped stinging criticism in the UK when it dropped racism charges against a Russian player.
Liverpool and rising England star Rhian Brewster accused Spartak Moscow captain Leonid Mironov of using the “n-word” during abuse at a UEFA Youth League match in December. Corroboration by two witnesses was deemed insufficient for FIFA to pursue the matter.
English football anti-discrimination body Kick it Out’s chair Lord Herman Ouseley called the outcome a “disgrace”.
“With this outcome, there has to be little confidence that FIFA can effectively deal with any potential incidents of racism and discrimination that may occur during this summer’s World Cup,” he said in April.
Referees can abandon matches
Despite the criticism, FIFA says it has worked hard on the issue in recent years.
A spokesman told SBS News it “has a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination” and “has been implementing a series of measures to fight discrimination and promote diversity, including an Anti-Discrimination Monitoring system active since 2015.”
This monitoring system, being implemented by FARE, has covered all the World Cup qualifiers and last year’s Confederations Cup matches in Russia, as well as some friendly games, and will be used at this World Cup for the first time.
FIFA has also introduced a three-step procedure in case of discriminatory incidents where referees can halt and ultimately close down a match over persistent bad behaviour by fans.
Off the field, FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee has the power to impose sanctions on football federations, clubs, officials, players and their representatives over incidents of code infractions, including discriminatory behaviour, as happened in the Russia-France friendly. Offending fans can be banned from future matches.
Ex-Socceroos speak out
Former Australian players have told SBS News racism in football is not just an issue in Russia, but globally.
Jade North, an Indigenous player and long-time Socceroo told SBS News: “You still see it in some of the big leagues across Europe and around the world.”
“You don't see players these days giving racial abuse. Unfortunately, you do see it more with some fans.”
North, who played for several A-League clubs as well as in Korea, Japan and Norway, said he was subject to racist abuse in Australia very early on in his career.
“I think FIFA are doing as much as they can but I think it starts well before kids even kick a football,” he said. “There is a small percentage of people out there that are a little uneducated when it comes to racism and people aren't born into this world to be racist.”
There have been a couple of incidents of racism that have been investigated in the A-league.
Former Socceroo Bruce Djite who was born in the US to West African parents, told SBS News the issue has ramifications beyond the players, and can have deeply negative impacts on fans, especially kids, watching the games.
“The impact on young children and fans of seeing racism at a football match is extremely detrimental,” said Djite, who now plays in Indonesia for PSM Makassar.
“It is an ugly side of the game and would cause many to consider whether they should return as fans. Even worse, the kids who witness such behaviour may believe it is normal and replicate it within their school or in the general community.”
Djite said some countries’ fans are worse than others, but that things had improved somewhat in recent years.
“I do believe there has been improvements in tackling racism and there are fewer incidents now than there has been historically,” he said. “However in saying that, there is much more that can be done and a long way to go if the goal is to eradicate racist chants and behaviour.”
'Russia is changing'
Russia’s World Cup preparations were given a cautious boost last month by Nigerian international Bryan Idowu, who played for Zenit St.Petersburg when he was younger.
Despite being abused by a supporter on his way back from training, and experiencing on-field racial abuse and frequent racial profiling by Russian police while playing there, he told the Associated Press that blatantly racist incidents have become less common in Russia in the past five years.
"It's really changed strongly," he said. "[Russian] people speak with friends from other countries and they go abroad more often and meet people there, and they just become more positive. The World Cup will help with that."
Ex-Socceroo Jade North said the World Cup would be a terrific platform for FIFA to “send a really powerful message to the rest of the world that there is no place for racism in football or anywhere. I hope the World Cup will be a success and I am sure it will be.”
The World Cup begins 14 June with all the biggest games covered live on SBS.