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Racism could cost Russia World Cup

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Russia is now a frightening place to live and work for ethnic minorities and there have been at least 36 race-hate murders in the last year. The far right is becoming more of threat in Russia and this growing feeling of racism is trickling down to all quarters of society, including the football grounds.

Russia is also deemed to be England’s main competition in their bid to host the 2018 World Cup but they have come under scrutiny recently for their attitude towards foreigners in their country.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had left many people frightened that Russia would also disintegrate but this time along ethnic fault lines. Many mainstream politicians exploited this fear to boost their approval ratings. In fact, Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin frequently uses nationalistic language and promotes policies which discriminate against non-ethnic Russians.

Russian Premier League giants Zenit St Petersburg are notorious for their custom of forbidding black players to play for their club and this open racism is prevalent throughout Russian football.

Former Zenit boss Dick Advocaat revealed: “I would have been happy to sign anyone, but the fans simply didn’t like the idea of buying black players.

“Quite honestly, I do not understand how they could pay so much attention to a player’s skin colour.

“Frankly, the only players who could have made Zenit stronger are dark skinned. But for us it would have been impossible.”

Advocaat learnt the extremism of his fans when he tried to sign France international Mathieu Valbuena from Marseille, where the first question on fans websites was: “Is he a Negro?”

This mentality engulfed in the Russian game has come into question in regards to the current bidding for the 2018 World Cup.

Like England’s campaign, the bidding process hasn’t gone as smoothly as the Russian Football Union would have liked.

Their campaign has been hindered by the racist acts of Lokomotiv Moscow fans who held a banner with a horrid message for former striker Peter Odemwingie who had just joined West Brom. The Nigerian international endured dreadful abuse during his time in Russia but this parting message (pictured above) was a low blow.

The Lokomotiv fans’ message sent tremors around world football but no eyelids were batted in Russia.

‘I didn’t expect it to get to this horrendous treatment,’ said Odemwingie, 29, born to a Russian Tatar mother and Nigerian father in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

“I have always known there were racist groups there so it was no surprise to me. But it wasn’t a personal attack; they are against anything not Russian, not just black people.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re Black, White, or Green, if you are not Moscow Russian, they don’t like you. It’s sad but true.”

“I find it strange that racism against black players is still there in the stadiums. Every time a coloured player receives the ball you can hear it. The monkey noises. You can feel it. It was more painful for me than, say, Brazilian players who are black, because I’m Russian.”

This hurtful snub by the Lokomotiv fans encouraged Odemwingie to seek pastures new, in the West Midlands with West Brom who have taken to their new striker and made the neglected Nigerian feel welcome at the Hawthorns.

West Brom does have a history of being pioneers when it comes to breaking barriers in times of racial tension. The Hawthorns was home in the seventies to the “Three Degrees” – Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, and Brendan Batson – three quality black footballers who, against considerable prejudice paved the way for black footballers in the English league. The West Brom faithful welcomed them and have done the same with Odemwingie, giving a cheeky but powerful message back to Lokomotiv fans who forced Odemwingie out of their club.

Surprisingly, Lokomotiv were not punished for the banner but a fair few clubs in Russia have felt the wrath of the governing bodies in football for similar abuse.

Spartak Moscow were fined £13,000 in 2007 when some of their fans held up a similar banner that read: “Monkey go home” at a game after Brazilian striker Welliton joined the club.

And in 2008, Zenit St Petersburg were forced to pay £38,000 by Uefa after Marseille players were targeted by some of the Russian club’s fans.

Football fans worldwide will be a little tentative about the prospect of travelling to Russia. The big decision will be made by Fifa’s executive committee on the World Cup 2018 and 2022 hosts at a meeting in Zurich on December 2.

‘FARE’ (Football Against Racism in Europe) is an organisation, similar to Britain’s ‘Kick It Out’ campaign, working hard to eradicate racism across European football. They are striving to educate the people of Poland Ukraine (Russia’s neighbours) who will be hosting the European Championships in 2012.

However, their campaign has come unstuck as the problems lie deeper. There is a feeling in the underbelly of society that the racism is fair and just. There is open racism against Ukranian Jews and Muslim Poles and these societal issues are to be addressed before looking at what ensues on the football pitches.

FARE started working with the Ukranian and Polish Football Associations as soon as it emerged that they would be hosting Euro 2012 three years ago and executive director of FARE, Piara Powar, believes there is still a long way to go for Russia, along with Ukraine and Poland to be deemed a tolerant society.

He said: “Domestic football in Russia has had a problem with racism for a very long time now. Their problem is quite systematic and sinister, it is closely correlated to the actions of far-right groups in Russia, especially Moscow, that surfaced after the disintegration of the eastern bloc and they have used football as a violent vehicle.

“If you were to compare the situation in Russia and Ukraine and even Poland to the work that has been done in England, they are on a different universe, and if Russia were to win the right to stage the World Cup in 2018 there is no chance racism would have been dealt with properly.

“But if it were to win the right to host the 2018 tournament there would be time to address the problem and I’m sure that they would do so.

“The issue is not a football one but it becomes a concern for us when players are being dehumanised in this way. Football is a microcosm of society and if society accepts, football will soon follow.”

Powar has point as a FARE survey found that more than half of Africans who took Moscow’s subways had been physically assaulted.

There are signs of progress though; according to Russian Home Office statistics, 2009 was the first year of decline in racist violence, and their annual reports have shown a decrease in racist violence  in 2008.

There is hope politically too as a black man has been elected councilman in Novozavidovo, a small town 60 miles north of Moscow. He is the first black elected to public office in Russian history.

It is clear that Russia is no stranger to the ugly face of the beautiful game. Despite the racial hatred that runs through the country it is apparent that work is being done to tackle Russia’s problem with racism and the country is taking its first steps to purge this subject out of society as well as football.

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