The Grim Spectre of Racism in Russian Football

Emmanuel Frimpong was sent off and subsequently banned for responding to racist fans in Russia. In three years, the country will host the World Cup.

Jul 26 2015, 3:04pm

Photo by PA Images

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

This week, former Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong received a two-game ban for responding to racist monkey chants during a game against Spartak Moscow. Frimpong – who now plays for FC Ufa in the Russia Premier League – raised two fingers to the supporters in question and was subsequently sent off.

Let's go over that again: a man was racially abused, then banned for responding with a two-fingered gesture. What happened to the abusers? The Russian FA said this on the matter:

''The video cameras did not pick up any evidence of gestures. There were no gestures aimed at the footballer''.

So, the audible monkey chants – did they just not happen? Are we all hearing things?

A recent poll suggested 80% of Muscovites favour the deportation of immigrant workers, indicative of a daunting trend sweeping through Russia. Those same trends are rife among football fans.

That's not to suggest every Russian fan is racist – far from it – but a nationalist undertone can be found that seemingly turns a blind eye to racism. If you are not a white player in Russian football, you should expect abuse; you should expect to be targeted, and you should put up, and shut up. Such is the sentiment of FC Ufa general director, Shamil Gazizov, who suggested: "What Frimpong did was wrong. Sometimes you even have to hold back the tears and just put up with it.''

Okay, Shamil. Okay.

The Brazilian international Hulk weighed in on the debate recently suggesting that ''racism happens in almost every game." He has reported it to the Russian FA many times, but to no avail. He has now withdrawn from his role in Saturday's World Cup draw, to be replaced by the Russian Alexey Smertin (remember him Chelsea fans?)

Despite reporting it to the Russian FA numerous times, it seems Hulk has accepted racism as part and parcel of the job. But why should he or any other player have to do this?

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A report by the Fare network and Sova Centre suggests there have been 99 racist and far-right displays, and 21 racially motivated attacks throughout the past two seasons in Russian football. The Russian government vigorously dispute this. Now, with the next World Cup due to be held on Russian soil, there exists an enormous cultural battle to alleviate racism.

Every World Cup brings its own pre-tournament concerns. At South Africa 2010, the largest security firm in the world, G4S, chose not to work the event due to safety fears. That World Cup turned out to be pretty exciting on the pitch, with no major incidents off it. Then, in 2014, a favela-led revolution was the media obsession, with some suggesting poorer Brazilians may sabotage the event. However, 2014 it was one of the best in the tournament's history, with no major incidents.

Brazil and South Africa overcame – or at least played down – their difficulties, but there remain genuine fears that Russia won't be able to replicate that in 2018.

Given that Russia is a BRIC economy, a global powerhouse, and fully aware that the World Cup is probably the biggest event in the entirety of sport, it's very possible they will do what is required to stamp out racism within football stadia. But it's travel between stadia that truly raise fears.

Minority fans are not just at risk from football hooliganism. Russian fans may very well behave, but how will those with not a care for the World Cup react to seeing an influx of other cultures into their country, even if it is for only a month. If Russian football history is anything to go by, they won't take it well.

When then-Zenit coach Dick Advocaat revealed the club tried to sign Mathieu Valbuena (a white French player), fans questioned if he was a 'negro'. When Peter Odemwingie left for West Brom in 2010, Lokomotiv Moscow fans held up banners with bananas painted on them, reading ''Thanks West Brom'', as if to suggest the Midlands outfit had done them a favour by taking a black player off their books.

Frimpong isn't alone in throwing back two fingers to racist chants either, as Roberto Carlos did when Zenit St.Petesburg fans hurled a banana at him during a game in 2011. Lokomotiv Moscow struck again when they threw a banana at former Blackburn defender Chris Samba during a match at the Lokomotiv Stadium.

In 2013, Yaya Toure was abused by CSKA Moscow fans with monkey chants and gestures. Russian commentator Alexei Andronov publicly called Arturo Vidal a ''Chilean scumbag'' on Twitter, before adding that all the Spanish referees are homosexuals, which makes for a confusing, prejudiced viewpoint.

Clearly, anyone that doesn't fit in with what Russian society considers acceptable can get it from this section of fans. It's the same attitude that led to the Cherkizovsky Market bombings in 2006, when Russian neo-Nazis targeted a market frequented by foreign merchants. Yes, we live in a different landscape nine years later, but the nationalist intent still remains, and the global publicity of the World Cup will attract opportunists.

Before Hulk, Zenit were the only top-flight Russian club to have never signed a player of African heritage; it took until 2013 for that to change. A group of Zenit fans released their 'Selection Manifesto 12', which strongly calls for an all-white team. How will the city of St Petersburg, or even Moscow (home to Lokomotiv and CSKA) be able to process the notion of thousands of non-white and non-Russian fans filling their cities in 2018?

This is not to suggest that Russia is alone: racism is still rife throughout Europe and its football clubs. Lazio boast a proportion of fascist fans, Drogba and Eboue were abused while playing in Turkey, and incidents still occur in the Premier League. But nowhere else in Europe is it as frequent as Russia – the country hosting the next World Cup.

Added to this, the Russian FA's sanctions on racism are worrying. A one-game ban for CSKA after racist violence against Roma? A £67,00 fine after the Roberto Carlos incident? Banning Frimpong for not accepting racial slurs? It's gone from petty punishments to punishing the innocent. Something's got to give.

It's not all doom and gloom: Cameroon legend Samuel Eto'o, formerly of Anzhi Makhachkala, says his experience in Russia was ''one of the most beautiful of my career'', and that racism and xenophobia won't tarnish the 2018 World Cup.

Following the Frimpong incident, however, such claims are difficult to accept.