Russian racism row reaches tipping point

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The desperate protestations of a clearly distraught Yaya Toure said it all: Not again. No strangers to accusations of racism, Russian fans, this time those of CSKA Moscow, have again come under scrutiny for allegedly directing ‘monkey chants’ at the Ivorian midfielder, mid-way through the second half of the Champions League group match between CSKA and Premier League side Manchester City.

Toure, to his credit, got on with the game and helped City to a priceless away win, yet has since spoken of his inevitable disappointment at the behaviour of the home fans, going as far as saying that black players like himself may boycott the 2018 World Cup, due to be held in Russia, if attitudes don’t change.

‘I think something has to be done to try and stop it’, said Toure in his post-match interview.

Many personalities in the media have commented on the subject, speaking I’m sure, for many, in saying that a World Cup devoid of black players, would be much weaker, and perhaps not even worth watching. Aficionados of sport may cast their eyes back to a similar situation when, the United States and various other Western allies boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. The result was an Olympiad dominated by the hosts, and one which lacked the colourful presence of the Americans in the sprints.

Yet what if Toure and team-mates such as Fernandinho really do hold the game’s governing body to ransom? How likely is it that, in the short space of five years, black players can be given the guarantee that a significant effort has been made to tackle racism in Russia? What if FIFA are faced with a large, 1980-style boycott?

The issue of xenophobia in football is not a novelty in Russia, nor indeed in any other country, yet with the growing influence of money in the game, and the influx of well-paid foreigners this inevitably attracts, any racist incidents are bound to receive increasing media scrutiny. Take, for example, the largest supporters club of Zenit St. Petersburg, who last year insisted that their club exclude black players from the squad; announcing that they’d ‘had enough of having dark-skinned players [such as recent record-signing Hulk] shoved down their throat’. Often, examples of racism are blamed on a minority, yet, when one of the biggest and best-supported clubs in the country is faced with these kinds of demands from a large amount of supporters, can one really ignore the problem much longer?

 

When confronted with evidence such as this, surely FIFA and UEFA can no longer continue to dole out futile fines and stadium bans. So what can they do? Ban Russia from holding the World Cup altogether? Award the tournament to a more tolerant nation? A nation, such as England?

We are often told to look to the past, look to the fact that England invented the glorious game and helped to disseminate it round the globe, as the missionaries did with Christianity. We have long dined at the world’s top table, winning the World Cup in ’66, enjoying the best the world has to offer plying their trade on our shores, and of course, our fabulous stadia – second perhaps only to Germany in their state-of-the-art, purpose-built magnificence.

Look back again to the past; to thirty years ago, when Jamaican-born John Barnes was terrorizing defences as a speedy winger for Liverpool. Look upon the famous picture of Barnes, standing on one leg, the other indifferently flicking away a banana that had landed at his feet. Look upon this picture and realise that, even in our own, seemingly tolerant game, it has taken years upon years of integration and multiculturalism to banish the casual racism which once haunted the sport.

More recently, two years ago, think of the infamous clip of John Terry and Anton Ferdinand. England’s glorious captain, caught on camera, calling the QPR defender an unspeakable name. Look back at this television coverage and realise that, even now, poisonous attitudes which should have been remedied decades ago still, occasionally, bubble to the surface.

No country is perfect. No-one has a squeaky clean record of human rights and certainly our government and media, along with those of other Western powerhouses such as the US, have no right to take a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude when it comes to social issues such as these, whilst still feigning a sense of innocence and lack of responsibility for wars in other areas of the world – but that’s another story.

For now, talk about moving the World Cup in 2018 should stop, and instead, media focus should descend on the likes of Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, who, alone in the footballing world, have the power to give players, such as Yaya Toure, the basic assurances they deserve. How they do it? Well that’s completely up to them. They’ve got to earn that multi-million pound salary some way.

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