As FIFA President Sepp Blatter uttered the name ‘Russia’ in his announcement of the winning 2018 World Cup bid nation, the delight of the Russian delegates was palpable. The men responsible for securing the first successful World Cup bid for Eastern Europe celebrated FIFA’s unexpected decision, sharing hugs of elation with the odd tear or two for good measure. The following day the impact of Russia’s achievement in winning the bid was illustrated in the headline; Russia, Live with the World’ which appeared in one of the nation’s main newspapers.
Three months on, dust settled, the stark reality of Russia’s challenge is thrust into the spotlight. Apart from the need for thirteen 40,000 plus stadia across the country, improvement of transport networks and a modernised infrastructure, the claims of former Brazil full back Roberto Carlos (now plying his trade for Anzhi in the Russian Premier league) of racist abuse from opposition supporters is much cause for concern for the Russian organising committee as they look to start assembling the starting blocks for their 2018 showpiece event.
The incident involving Carlos, which took place in St Petersburg two weeks ago before a match between Zenit and the Brazilian’s new club, Anzhi Makhachkala, saw a Zenit fan taunt Carlos with a peeled banana.
The 37-year-old Brazilian and former World Cup winner said he was unfazed by the abuse but urged Russian authorities to get serious about tackling racism.
“This kind of behaviour by fans is unacceptable,” Carlos told Russian media.
“I am sure my club and FC Zenit will do everything they can to find the culprit. That is the only way to get rid of the problem.” FC Zenit, said it was “deeply sorry” for any offence the unidentified fan had caused, claiming the culprit would be banned for life from all future Zenit matches.
The club, known for its group of ‘Ultra’ supporters, were fined £36,000 in 2008 after such fans threw bananas and made monkey chants at three black French players, while the club’s previous manager, Dutchman Dick Advocaat has said he feared signing black players because of the fans’ racist views.
There has been a racist undertone in Russian football for some time. After Peter Odemwingie left Lokomotiv Moscow for West Bromwich Albion last year, Lokomotiv’s supporters made it clear what they thought of West Brom’s decision to purchase the striker. Lokomotiv ‘Ultra’s’ unfurled the banner during a Russian league match which depicted a peeled banana with the message ‘Thanks West Brom’.
Against this ghastly background many black players and supporters could be forgiven for being a little uncomfortable with the prospect of going over to Russia for the World Cup. What we need now is re-assurance from Russia and its authorities that this is an important issue for them. Racism should not be allowed to sully the image of this wonderful game and tournament. South Africa has proved, in 2010, the positive impact that a well-run and friendly World cup can do to a country and its people.
This writer for one believes that Russia can, and will, host a fantastic tournament in seven years time. Russia has come a long way from the USSR and Cold War era. It has become a vibrant modern community and in fairness one which is welcoming new cultures outside of the football stadium.
Russia is poised to become a dominant economic power once again. The 2018 World Cup, when held there, will go a long way in helping the world see a new Russia. They just need to find a way to remove the problem of racism that can be seen in many cities and in many fans of the game around the country.
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