Comment: No progress in the fight against racism in Russia, hosts of the 2018 World Cup

It is a country that will not even acknowledge the word

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The Independent Football

Alexei Sorokin was a man on the run in Monday’s early-morning Moscow sleet, trying to avoid any questions on the subject of the endemic terrace racism which hangs over preparations for the 2018 World Cup and which has contributed to the local side being forced to play Manchester City behind closed doors in the city on Tuesday night.

“We are in the course of inspection visits on stadiums. We respond to questions on stadiums and our work with Fifa, please,” he said, as this correspondent and several others pursued him through the Luzhniki Stadium slush, after a stage-managed press conference had delivered assurances that the £335m World Cup final venue will be delivered on time. “Only questions on the stadium; only the stadium,” parroted one of his apparatchiks – who was also protected from the elements by the 2018 World Cup issue turquoise waterproof, as he sought to drown out this English background noise. But because there was nowhere for Sorokin to go and because he generally speaks his mind, he relented. “This is not a threat that is unique to Russia,” he said in his fluent American English. “We are part of the universal effort to combat any unwanted activities in the stadium. We have read that some people use the football games to self-express but not to watch football.”

Note the absence of the word “racism” in that answer and the implicit air of denial in the whitewash language he used. The 2018 World Cup chief executive has “read” about this problem of people wanting to “self-express” on football terraces. It was a deeply unconvincing response, considering the way that racism remains a part of Russian stadium culture. The gesture being given off by some fans during Russia’s Euro 2016 draw with Moldova only nine days ago, was the three-fingered neo-Nazi gesture, which is a source of shock and censure when it very occasionally surfaces in Germany. The Russian media seemed resigned to it. The conduct of a minority is apparently accepted.

City’s arrival here restores memories of last year’s fixture against the same opposition – CSKA Moscow – when the racial abuse of Yaya Touré provoked an equally steadfast denial by local officials – even after Uefa had punished them with a partial stadium closure. Touré also suggested that African players should not attend the 2018 tournament if this were to continue. Life and football have gone on much the same in the year since. Tuesday’s full stadium closure – punishment for clashes between CSKA fans and police at Stadio Olimpico in Rome last month, when racist banners were also allegedly unfurled – is Uefa’s third sanction against the club in less than 12 months.


Sorokin’s people were not the only ones trying to button up this line of conversation. A CSKA press official intervened to move the discussion on Monday after his club’s forward Ahmed Musa was asked to expand on his claim that the exclusion of the fans was “unfair”. The club’s ditchwater dull coach Leonid Slutsky did not even venture on to the territory. “I am a head coach, and to answer this question I need much more detailed information concerning this affair. I am not able to answer this question because I am a sports professional,” he said. CSKA feel that the Italians ought to have ensured there was adequate policing in Rome and say that one of the Russian fans was attacked by home supporters wielding a knife before the match.

Casual conversations here suggest that Russian officials view racism as non-existent at best, light-hearted joking at worst, and the weird world of Russian sporting humour has certainly plumbed new depths in the past few days. The Moscow media on Monday chewed over the “joke” by the country’s Tennis Federation head Shamil Tarpischev, who last week referred to Serena and Venus Williams as “the Williams brothers” and said they were “scary to look at”. He was punished with a fine and year’s ban from Women’s Tennis Association activity.

In football, the victims can get the punishments. The Russian Football Union banned Dynamo Moscow’s Christopher Samba for two matches last month after he responded to racist abuse in a match against Torpedo Moscow. Samba raised his middle finger to Torpedo fans on 22 September, before being substituted at half-time – an “unpleasant gesture” according to the RFU. Torpedo were subjected to a stadium closure for their next match as punishment, though perhaps Samba would have been wise to reject Russian advances after his £100,000-a-week stint at QPR ended in relegation. His first spell in the country featured a banana being thrown at him in Lokomotiv Moscow’s Stadium when playing for Anzhi Makhachkala.

The more immediate concern for some City fans is their commitment of £500 on a trip to a football match which officials subsequently declared closed to fans. They are left to reflect on why they are suffering collateral damage from the indiscipline of another club’s supporters. Uefa officials indicated on Monday that to have allowed City supporters entry would have put that group at the mercy of violent fans and created a security hazard.

Asked if CSKA should, at the very least, be forced to reimburse any travelling costs City fans can prove they have incurred, Uefa said the home club’s appeal against their punishment must first be exhausted. As always with these matters, Russian sport views its detractors with indignation.