Racism in Russian football: when ugliness becomes the norm

Racism in Russian football: when ugliness becomes the norm

Russian football fans are in the news again for all the wrong reasons. CSKA Moscow were punished with a partial stadium closure while Spartak Moscow fans were spotted brandishing a Swastika flag. Racism and race relations in the country is a tense topic and while it’s not football’s responsibility to act as a moral compass, it could serve as a catalyst for at least educating some misinformed attitudes. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Just a few hours after CSKA Moscow were punished for racist chanting during a Champions League match, fans from another club in the city, Spartak Moscow, unfurled a banner with a Swastika on it during a Russian Cup tie.

When CSKA play their next Champions League fixture, against Bayern Munich, a section of their stadium will be closed as punishment for racist chants directed at Yaya Toure last week, but that might simply mean that those racist fans will go elsewhere. There is no ban on specific people, there was not enough evidence for that. However, UEFA needed to act and send a message, so they dished out a soft punishment which could be circumvented easily by the guilty.

Toure was at the heart of the racist slurs, monkey chants directed at him during Manchester City’s fixture against CSKA last week. During the game, Toure walked up to the referee and told him about the chants, monkey noises and general abuse. The referee did not follow protocol. He should have stopped the game, asked for an announcement over the PA system and, if it still persisted, the game should have been abandoned. Instead, things carried on as normal and, Toure says, so did the abuse.

Racism is prevalent in many European countries and Russia is one of them. From constant monkey noises, neo-Nazi rallies and banners with bananas on them, the culture in the country points to an epidemic. Yet, the clubs who are at the centre of the storms deny their involvement. Following Toure’s complaints, they denied the allegations, saying they consider the racism allegations to be “unfounded”, but UEFA ruled differently and decided on the partial stadium closure. That is their standard procedure for the first offence, which will be followed by a full stadium closure and a fine of £42,800 for the second offence.

The ruling was a nice bit of masquerading from the governing body who seemingly do not know how to deal with a culture where racism is inherent and those who commit the misdemeanours see nothing wrong with their slurs.

When Nicklas Bendter brandished the wrong underwear once off, he was fined £80k and suspended for one competitive international fixture. It’s not the first time there has been such a galling discrepancy, either. Proto were fined just £16,700 for racist abuse against Balotelli in that same season.

Fining the club is clutching at straws, but if they are to be fined, there needs to be a universal sum agreed. UEFA perhaps hope that fining the club itself will result in better policing of fans during  a game, but where it will hit hardest is ordering a full stadium closure when the allegations are as damning as they seem to be in Toure’s instance. The downside to a full closure for, say, all European fixtures in a season, is perhaps unfair on those who do not participate in the untoward activities, but again, it could translate to fans policing others better and the club policing their fans better. It’s harsh, but it sends a clear no tolerance policy message.

UEFA and Fifa, though, are at loggerheads for the kind of punishments clubs should incur for racist slurs. Fifa believe that the harshest possible punishment should be dished out, by kicking the clubs found guilty out of certain competitions. Fifa doesn’t want to go so far as taking away global competitions from countries where racism is a real problem and Sepp Blatter insists that it’s not football’s responsibility to address cultural issues.

“I have to insist that racism and discrimination is in our society,” he said. “It’s our society that brought it in football and now we have to fight against that in our football. But we can only fight it in our football. We cannot go to any society where something happened and to ask them to stop. This is not the duty or the responsibility or even the right of Fifa to do so.”

Only, football does have the power to raise awareness of issues in certain countries and politics does mix with sport. In Brazil, the money spent on infrastructure being forked out for the World Cup has caused an uproar in the country.

Toure has hinted that a boycott from African players during the 2018 World Cup in Russia could be one way of taking action and making a point.

“We are all humans. It is not a nice feeling to go and play a football match – to bring joy to the people – and to be called a monkey or to hear monkey noises. I don’t look like a monkey. That’s what disappoints me so much.”

He has since added that’s up to UEFA and Fifa to act. However, his suggestion should not be taken lightly and is worth considering if football is to step in and force change in a society seemingly trying to ignore its problems.

Director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, Alexander Brod, had suggested xenophobia and other racist expressions exists in as much as 50 percent of Russians and in 2008 it was estimated that around 85,000 neo-Nazis were present in the country. In 2009, the  Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy found that more than half of Africans who live in Moscow had been physically attacked in the past. In 2010, Rafal Pankowski, who is in charge of monitoring racism in football in Russia, said the problem was widespread and rarely acknowledged.

“There is hardly any acknowledgement of racism either inside or outside the grounds by the government and football authorities in Russia, and there is a pattern of denial when the problem is raised.

“Nazi slogans are common in many Russian stadiums. Matches are often interrupted with racist chants aimed at black players,” he said.

“I have seen it for myself. There is racist graffiti in the streets. Major bookshops openly sell racist literature. The hate-crime rate is high. Black people are often beaten up by skinhead gangs,” he added.

Russian officials have also previously tried to brush off banners with bananas on them, aimed at black players, by saying: “In Russian student slang to get a banana means to fail a test” as a response to an incident in 2010 when fans of Lokomotiv Moscow “celebrated” the sale of Nigeria striker Osaze Odemwingie with a banner which had a banana on it saying: “Thanks, West Brom”.

More than 150 far-right groups with an ideology of racial, ethnic and religious intolerance are currently active in Russia, according to the interior ministry.

The problem is stark, and the chance to try to force social change or, at least, educate those who are still misinformed, should not go amiss through the 2018 World Cup and before. It might not be football’s responsibility, but it certainly has become part of its broader culture. DM

Photo: Manchester City’s Yaya Toure celebrates his goal against Chelsea during their English Premier League soccer match at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, northern England, February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Darren Staples


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz