Friday, 23 May 2014

The Russian scenario? Racism and violence ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

It’s four years before Russia hosts the World Cup. The stadiums and infrastructure are on track, and confidence is high enough that the Sports Minister has been boasting Russia’s avoided “the Brazilian scenario.” But what about the Russian scenario?

Time is running out for Russia to crack down on violence and racism in the stands. If the 2018 World Cup becomes a hate-fest, it doesn’t matter how nice the grounds are. 

Here’s a rundown of some of the nastiest incidents this season:

-         - Dynamo Moscow defender Vladimir Granat sustains a head injury when a Zenit St. Petersburg fan punches him as hundreds more invade the pitch. They were angry at being 4-2 down and decided to stop the game. (May)

-         - Yaya Toure is abused with monkey chants by CSKA Moscow fans, earning the Russian champions a one-match partial stadium ban from UEFA. (November) 

-        -  Two weeks after serving that partial ban, the CSKA fans earn their club a full stadium ban for yet more Champions League racism, this time against Viktoria Plzen. (December) 

-        -  Spartak Moscow fans brandish a swastika flag as they fight running battles with police and smash up the stadium during a cup tie against inoffensive second-tier side Shinnik Yaroslavl. (October)

-        -  Armoured vehicles are used to rescue fans as a second-tier league game in Nazran turns into a race riot between fans of two North Caucasus teams. (October)

-        -  Over 60 arrests at two Moscow derbies (May 16), over 40 arrests for brawling at a Far East derby (May 14), over 40 arrests in Irkutsk when fans attempt to attack Division 2 East players (May 14), over 100 arrests at Lokomotiv-Zenit (May 4). That’s not even all the figures from this month.

If you go back a little further, there’s more. Since 2012, there have been three incidents of black players being taunted with bananas in top-flight games, one of a fan pouring a bottle of urine over a Moroccan player, and a goalkeeper sustaining eye injuries from pyrotechnics thrown from the Zenit crowd. Perhaps most famously, a major Zenit fan club published a manifesto calling for a ban on black and gay players at their club.

On a more personal note, I’ve seen a father and his young son roll snowballs in the stands before the father points out a black player and tells his son: “Hit the n*****.” That same player, Akes Dacosta Goore, returned to play at the same stadium a year later and was racially abused from the start of the match. He raised a middle finger to the crowd and was sent off.

There’s no meaningful system of punishment. The Russian FA hands out a sprinkling of tiny fines every week that mean nothing to the clubs or their hardcore fans. The standard punishment is just £1,700 for “the shouting by fans of insulting expressions” – everything from questioning the referee’s eyesight to the vilest racism.

As always, these kinds of acts are perpetrated by a minority of fans. But in modern Britain, at least, there is a majority of fans prepared to condemn violence and racism. If the general mood is that it’s not acceptable and should be reported, the hardcore are less likely to cause trouble. That point hasn’t been reached in Russia.

The Russian government has made some efforts to control hooliganism recently, passing a so-called Fan Law that, among other things, introduces the first court-ordered football bans for individual fans. Unfortunately, there hasn’t yet been much sign of these in use. After Zenit fans invaded the pitch and attacked an opposition player earlier this month, the club itself has banned 200 fans, but director general Maxim Mitrofanov admits that to stop them entering the stadium, Zenit must rely on the goodwill of its own fan club – an influential organisation that, among other things, distributes thousands of tickets.

The clubs must also try to make the stadiums more hospitable for families and less hardcore fans. The fact is that at the moment, the Russian matchday experience is pretty unpleasant and many games end up as a standoff between hardcore fans and the police. It can be done – last week’s title decider between CSKA and Lokomotiv had loud, vocal crowds with many women and children included. There a lot at stake, plenty of passion and no trouble.

Before Euro 2012, some feared the host nations were too dangerous to host a major football tournament. In the event, the Polish and Ukrainian fans were largely peaceful – it was the Russian travelling support who caused unrest hugely disproportionate to their numbers. 

Unless swift changes are made, at the 2018 World Cup, it will the host fans ruining their country’s reputation.

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