FIFA’s Weak Attempts to Fight Racism Are on Display at the World Cup in Russia

The group Fare Network (Football Against Racism in Europe) is an organization that tracks racism and homophobia in the soccer world. For the 2018 World Cup in Russia, they set up a series of “diversity houses” for the LGBTQ community and people of color. Now in St. Petersburg, they have been evicted from the building they were leasing for these safe spaces with other tenants also reportedly under instruction not to offer subleases, leaving only the brutal symbolism of a diversity house shuttered. Accusing local authorities, Fare’s director Piara Powar told the AP, “It seems to be clear that the project in St. Petersburg has been subject to a political attack of the kind that shows how debates about human rights are curtailed by powerful conservative political forces in Russia.”

The need for Fare and similar organizations is pressing for the 2018 World Cup. Racist incidents in Russian soccer by players, fans, and hooligan clubs in recent years have been routinized, and discrimination is a regular reality for black players. During a UEFA Youth League match against the Russian top-tier club Spartak Moscow last December, Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster was abused by a Russian opponent with a combination of racial and homophobic epithets. The incident, a touchstone illustration of soccer’s contemporary racism, came after a match in September in Moscow where another young black Liverpool player was subjected to racist monkey chants by Spartak’s fans. A few months after the December game, Paul Pogba and other black players on the French national team would be subjected to similar monkey chants during a friendly against Russia in St. Petersburg. Black soccer players in the country have complained of racismin “almost every game,” and Fare co-authored a report which found 80 racist and far-right incidents in Russian soccer in the 2017–18 season.

For years, anti-black racism has blighted the soccer culture in Russia. It’s increasingly obvious is that FIFA, the international body that ostensibly regulates the game, is not taking these claims seriously as they should.

A catalogue of recent responses from FIFA and the associations under its auspices suggests a great deal of window dressing with little in the display case. Brewster’s complaint following the match was dismissed for a lack of evidence. For an assortment of racist incidents, Spartak and Zenit St. Petersburg, another of Russia’s top teams whose supporters had previously released a manifesto calling for an all-white, all-heterosexual team, were fined a pocket-change $1,600 and a partial stadium closure for one game. Racist chants against the French team saw the national Russian Football Union fined $22,000, just slightly above the amount England was fined when one of their age-group players used an energy drink that wasn’t an official sponsor.

After calling the fines “laughable” and saying that he had “no faith” in the regulatory system, England defender Danny Rose revealed he wouldn’t be inviting his family to the competition because of fear of racism. “The fines are nothing more than a slap on the wrist with no actions behind them,” Troy Townsend, the education manager of the London-based anti-discrimination organization Kick It Out, told us. “If you are going to fine federations and fans, there needs to be more accountability. Educating the people who continue with this form of abuse, is a better way than just banning them—closing sections of stadiums only penalizes the innocent as well…there needs to be a better thought process put in place.”

All of this would require a deeper, long-term investment in reimagining the game, but here FIFA has already—to be kind—scored an own-goal. In 2016, FIFA disbanded its anti-racism task force on the grounds that their mission was “complete.” One task force member, Osasu Obayiuwana, called it a “grave mistake,” writing in a column, “How could we have fulfilled our ‘temporary mission,’ when FIFA has failed to take any strong, direct action to change the attitude of several Football Associations and Federations towards racism?… And not allowing it to have taken on the task of dealing with Russia, ahead of the World Cup, was also a faux pas.”

One of the measures FIFA officials have rolled out specifically for the World Cup is a “three-step” process for stopping discrimination during matches, a sliding scale of enforcement by the referee that increases from warnings to temporary suspension and abandonment of play. It’s been tested during some previous internationals, but is intended only as a last resort—there haven’t really been any notable matches that have seen mid-game intervention since a player-led walk off 2013. “The three-step protocol is only as good as the officials who apply it to the letter of the law,” Townsend said. And whether referees will have the nerve and receive the backing from FIFA to walk off the field with so many eyes watching, with money, prestige, and pride at stake is another question.

Russia’s hosting of the World Cup can be seen as the nadir of FIFA’s relationship with racism. Russia has long had a problem with racism in its stadiums, and FIFA doesn’t really seem to have put any real pressure on the nation to clean up its act. “The outer fringe of Russian football hooliganism is a festering mess of xenophobia and bigotry,” said Jules Boykoff, political science professor and ex–pro soccer player. “Meanwhile, FIFA is essentially franchising the practice of ‘sportwashing,’ gifting its signature event to authoritarian countries that use the World Cup to enhance their reputations and distract us from their horrific human-rights records.” This extends to the news of the diversity houses: Even while FIFA reportedly made “high-level representations” to stop the eviction in St. Petersburg, there’s no doubt that the organization that has all the power and influence in the game really could do more—if it was a priority.

As Minky Worden from Human Rights Watch said to The Nation, “While FIFA say they have procedures in place, Russia’s [toleration of] racism and encouraging discrimination against LGBT people creates a hostile climate. The crackdown on civil-society groups—who might have encouraged education and tolerance—since Putin came back to the Kremlin in 2012, has left Russia with few domestic resources to combat racism and hooliganism.”

The World Cup’s diverse and international crowds may mean that a racist incident is less likely to happen, but regardless, it’s an issue clearly endemic to the game. Organizers stress that FIFA’s efforts must be better both in and beyond the Russia tournament. Townsend told us that he hopes that FIFA will show authority, “taking control of situations, sending out strong and the appropriate messages. That shouldn’t be too much to ask from the people who govern the game, but I sit here and wonder if we will ever treat racism in the way it needs to be treated, to stamp it out of the beautiful game.”

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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