With World Cup looming, soccer’s racism rises to forefront

In 2013, following a Champions League clash with CSKA Moscow, Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure claimed groups of CSKA supporters had racially abused him a few times throughout the match. In post-match interviews the Ivorian midfielder was furious, emphasizing that Russian soccer must clean up its racism problem. “Otherwise,” he said, “if we are not confident coming to the World Cup in Russia, we don’t come” (The Guardian, “Yaya Toure: players could boycott 2018 World Cup in Russia over racism,” 3.29.2018).

Toure’s suggestion never gained traction after that Champions League night. More than four years later, with World Cup on our doorstep, such talk of boycott is nowhere to be found. Yet racism in soccer pervades on an international scale.

Just last week, the French national team traveled to Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg (one of the host cities for this summer’s World Cup) for an international friendly against Russia. The match made headlines not for the result, but for claims made—first by a Reuters photographer pitchside—of monkey noises directed towards French midfielder N’Golo Kante and other racist chants by Russian fans towards Black French players, including Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembele. FIFA is set to collect evidence on the matter.

It would be a disturbing incident anytime, but especially so now because it is just months before Russia hosts the world’s biggest sporting event, and because it is not an isolated incident. The fact is, Russian soccer has a serious racism problem. A quick Google search yields several incidents from just the last few months. Spartak Moscow was charged after its fans flung racist insults at Guilherme Marinato, Lokomotiv Moscow’s Brazilian keeper (Chicago Tribune, “Russia boss Cherchesov: racism not enough ‘to be fought,’” 3.07.2018). Zenit St. Petersburg was charged last month by UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, for undisclosed fan transgressions thought to be the racist mocking of an injured Black player. In the 2016-7 season, Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), an organization that partners with FIFA and UEFA to fight discrimination and racism, reported 89 racist incidents (Chicago Tribune).

Asked about racism within Russian culture, Russian national team coach Stanislav Cherchesov asserted, “I do not think that we have racism on a scale that needs to be fought” (Chicago Tribune).

Toure won’t be in Russia this summer; he retired from international football in September and then Cote d’Ivoire saw their hopes of qualification dashed in November. Still, can anyone say with any degree of confidence that other players of color won’t face racist abuse during the month-long tournament? I certainly can’t.

We must take a serious look at why racism continues to blot the modern game, not just in Russia but across Europe as well. The obvious starting point of interrogation is FIFA, who oversees the World Cup, and whose website claims inclusivity as one of the organization’s guiding principles. I frequently see FIFA’s “Say No to Racism’ campaign slapped up on the electronic boards surrounding pitches and banners held by players in team photos before games, which, while cute, doesn’t inspire much confidence as a driver of real change. To address the problem of racism in 2013, FIFA established the Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination. Three years later, the task force was disbanded, having fulfilled its mission according to FIFA. At least some of the task force’s members didn’t believe the adoption of a crowd monitoring system, a guide for how referees should respond to racist and discriminatory incidents and the creation of a diversity award by FIFA meant that the task force had fulfilled its mission (The Guardian, “FIFA disbands its anti-racism task force declaring that the job is done,” 9.24.16).

While it is FIFA who will be held accountable for any racist incidents this summer, it perhaps is UEFA who should shoulder blame for persistent problems in Europe. Whereas FIFA only has power over the World Cup and qualifiers (played every four years), UEFA controls the Champions League and Europa League (played every year), as well as the European Championship. So, while UEFA won’t directly influence the World Cup, its action or inaction over the last few years will. It is UEFA who has more constant interactions with clubs, national federations and soccer culture.

Unfortunately, UEFA has not been a strong or consistent enough force in the fight against racism in soccer. It has doled out punishments in the past (against Zenit Saint Petersburg, for example, as discussed above); however, the instances of inaction stand out more strongly.

Just this January, Liverpool’s 17-year-old striker Rhian Brewster accused a Spartak Moscow defender of racial abuse during after a Youth League match. UEFA dropped the charges, citing lack of evidence. Borussia Dortmund striker Michy Batshuayi, on loan from Chelsea, claimed supporters of Italian club Atalanta racially abused him during a Europa League matchup. Last Thursday, UEFA rejected the case (USA Today, “Batshuayi doubts UEFA cares about racism,” 3.29.2018).

Batshuayi then tweeted: “2018 and still racists monkey noises in the stands … really?!” (Twitter, (a)mbatshuayi, 3.29.2018) His tweet brilliantly doesn’t point to anyone, thus pointing to all involved—the fans in particular, the general toxic culture, and the organizations that have failed to root racism out.

On June 14, the host nation, Russia, will take on Saudi Arabia to kick off the World Cup. At that game and at all the games, trained FARE observers will be embedded incognito in the crowds, tracking and hoping to prevent racial abuse. I hope the observers hear nothing. I hope the tournament is remembered for its on-field play. I’m not too confident.

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