Russia, Racism and 2018 Hosting Rights

The anti-racism campaign was rocked recently when fans of Russian club, Locomotiv Moscow acted in what was widely regarded as a racist manner. At a match, played shortly after Nigeria’s Peter Odemwingie was sold to West Brom of England, the Locomotiv fans displayed a large banner on which was inscribed the words “Thanks West Brom”; but the striking effect was the picture of a banana in the middle of the banner. The innuendo pointed firmly to the racist reference to a blacks. The player involved expressed his displeasure and reiterated that black players in the Russian league were often exposed to racism and that the officials did not do enough to curb it. Apart from Locomotiv Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg is infamous for racist behaviour by its fans and was fined £38,000 a couple of years ago when its fans targeted black players from Marseille with racist chants. The situation was reported as being so bad that Andre Bikey of Cameroon had to carry a gun to protect himself from irate racist fans while playing for Locomotiv.
The head of Russia’s 2018 World Cup bid, Alexei Sorokin insists that the act of Locomotiv fans did not constitute racist abuse. According to his explanation, the banana is symbolic of a ‘failed test’ – in apparent reference to Odemwingie’s poor display in his final months at the club. He further opined that the fact that the disciplinary body of the Russian Football Union did not sanction the club shows that the banner is not to be regarded as racist. Of course, this defence was hard to swallow as criticism still came pouring in from various quarters and countries with rival 2018 hosting bids sought to capitalize on it. It is easy to believe that racist acts – such as the Locomotiv banner is believed to be – coupled with the fact that Russia is regarded as one of the most racist countries as far as football is concerned, would be enough to scuttle Russia’s chances of hosting the World Cup in 2018. Indeed it could, but:
It is trite that one of the objectives of FIFA is to prevent any form of abuse and combat racism and discrimination. While it is easy to regard denying Russia a hosting chance on account of its racist notoriety as a means of stamping this objective, the reverse could be a more rewarding perspective. The point is that if Russia were to win the hosting right, the influx of divergent football cultures that the World Cup brings would broaden the minds of domestic Russian fans and make them more receptive to foreigners, including blacks. This would be better achieved with specific campaigns tailored towards this purpose. Lost amidst the success of the hosting of the 2010 World Cup by South Africa are the fears that South Africa has had a history of xenophobia. The hosting right to such global events could actually be a tool to achieve the objective of promoting the game, free from vices such as racism. With at least a quarter of foreign players in the Russian league being reported to be Africans, coupled with the increased sponsorship which empowers the clubs to look outside for football imports, Russia is increasingly becoming home to black and foreign players. Therefore, new measures must be thought-out and implemented to kick racism out.

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