FIFA President Gianni Infantino was in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar on Tuesday, visiting the stadium of the city’s Russian Premier League side and surveying the scene in the country ahead of the upcoming Confederations Cup.
It was a polished occasion. Infantino smiled and posed for photos with the Russian president Vladimir Putin, and proceeded to stamp his approval on Russia’s preparations for its hosting role this and next summer.
“As FIFA president — and what is more important as a football fan, I can invite the entire world to come to Russia to watch the Confederations Cup and the World Cup games and to discover this beautiful country,” Infantino reportedly told the state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
It was a glowing endorsement. But the truth is that with this summer’s Confederations Cup kicking off in less than a month, and next summer’s World Cup just over a year away, Russia has never been less fit to welcome to the world.
Put aside politics for a moment. The simple fact is that Russia that has made it abundantly clear – time and again – that non-white, non-heterosexual players and fans are not welcome within its borders.
There is a litany of reasons to be leery of Infantino’s statement inviting “the entire world” to Russia. Let’s start here: Racial abuse is rampant in the country’s footballing culture.
According to Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), the number of racist incidents at football matches in Russia is on the rise – from 80 during the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons to 93 in the 2014-2015 season alone.
The opening game of the Confederations Cup is scheduled for Saint Petersburg, where supporters of the biggest local club, Zenit, issued a decree five years ago demanding the club cut ties with its black and gay players.
At Euro 2012, Russian fans racially abused Czech fullback Gebre Selassie. Christopher Samba had bananas thrown at him when he played in the Russian Premier League for Anzhi Makhachkala. Roberto Carlos was treated similarly.
Hulk, formerly of Zenit, said in 2015 that he encountered racism “in almost every game” in Russia. Spartak Moscow fans charmingly unfurled a Nazi flag during a cup game in 2013.
CSKA Moscow, the biggest club in the country’s capital city, had to play its European matches behind closed doors in 2014 due to an unrelenting series of racist and violent incidents involving its fans.
After being racially abused by CSKA fans in 2013, Ivorian Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure suggested that African players might boycott the World Cup in Russia altogether.
To combat the systemic failure of Russian soccer to reign in racism in its game, the Russia Football Union appointed former national team midfielder Alexi Smertin as its “anti-racism and discrimination inspector.”
This is the same Alexi Smertin who, invited on the BBC’s World Football Programme in 2015, stated glibly, “There’s no racism in Russia, because it doesn’t exist.”
“Racism in Russia is like fashion,” Smertin shared. “It comes from abroad, from different countries. It was never, ever here before. Ten years ago, some fans may have given a banana to black guys – it was just for fun. I think the media is making the wrong image of Russia.”
Smertin’s appointment should come as no surprise. After all, in 2015, the former Vice President of FIFA Vyacheslav Koloskov, who also worked on the Russian bid, suggested that monkey chanting isn’t even racist.
In 2016, Alexander Verkhovsky – who directs the SOVA Center, a Moscow-based think tank that works primarily on Russian nationalism and racism – said, “The likelihood of a racist incident [during the World Cup] is very high. It’s not just that it might happen but that it happens very often.”
In January, the SOVA Center was placed on the Russian government’s “Foreign Agents” list.
The news does not get any better when it comes to the rights of LGBTQ individuals.
Russia has long been hostile towards gay and lesbian people – with Putin signing a law effectively banning the promotion of LGBTQ rights and culture in 2013 – but reports in April that gay men are being targeted, tortured, and killed in Chechnya have upped the ante.
According to the Novaya Gazeta, as of April 1, Chechen authorities had detained more than 100 gay men. 26, the Gazeta reports, have been killed so far. The Chechen government, backed by Putin, denies that gay men even exist in the region.
One of the journalists instrumental in breaking the Chechnya story is now in hiding. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 34 journalists have been killed in the country since 2000.
According to Freedom House, Russia currently ranks 180 out of 190 countries in the world – behind Iraq, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – for press freedom.
That issue is only tangentially related to the country’s ability to host the World Cup. But it is important to note that even those who have no political agenda won’t necessarily be safe Russia this or next summer.
That’s because Russia is also riddled with hooliganism and anarchists who have taken the opportunities provided by major soccer tournaments throughout this decade to wreck havoc and terror.
At Euro 2012, Russian fans attacked stewards during that Czech Republic game and sent four to the hospital. They also fought Polish fans in the streets of Warsaw before unfurling a banner referencing the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland during World War II.
Last summer, at Euro 2016, Russian ultras injured more than 100 England fans and left several in critical condition after days of violence in Marseille that culminated with a vicious, coordinated attack inside the Stade Velodrome.
One fan who was in Marseille told the BBC, “It was like a war scene. The six that I went with, there was a guy who had served in Iraq, he said he was more scared there than he ever was in war… It was like they wanted to kill people.”
Back in Russia, the violence was applauded. The first move of Igor Lebedev, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament, was to congratulate the attackers for defending Russia’s honor. Putin condemned the attacks – under heavy pressure from UEFA – with a quip about 200 Russians beating several thousand Brits.
In February, a BBC documentary warned that England fans will again be targeted next summer – with Russian hooligans promising of the World Cup, “For some, it will be a festival of football; for others, it will be a festival of violence.”
The Confederations Cup will be hosted by Russia this summer. The World Cup will follow in 2018. There is no chance of reassigning the tournament to a safer country, and no chance of a boycott.
But what Infantino’s warm words mean that FIFA is embracing the specter of holding its showpiece event in a footballing country where racism is rampant, LGBTQ individuals are in danger, and organized violence looms.
No supporter, coach, or player should ever have to risk their lives to participate in a sporting event – let alone one with so much real power to affect positive, if temporary, joy and togetherness.
But that’s where we’re at with Russia’s year at the center of the soccer world rapidly approaching. What’s more troubling? Compared to Qatar, it still might be a picnic.
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