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Russia flagHow do you solve a problem like nationalism? This is a question that the Russian Football Union must have asked itself on countless occasions over the past decade.

The mix of political, social and sporting sentiments have become increasingly difficult to separate as the consequence of decades of unrest come to the fore. However, prior to recent developments, these issues appeared to have been confined to a hardcore in the stands.

A recent storm has been brewing over the actions of Alex Matyunin – a young Muscovite referee – who has found himself at the centre of an anti-nationalist agenda. The crux of the issue stems from accusations made against Matyunin during a match between Volga Tver and Saturn-2 Moscow Oblast, in which the referee is alleged to have made derogatory pro-nationalist comments to one of Volga’s players – Albert Gadzhibekov. The claims have since been backed up by five other Volga players as well as the team’s doctor who was on the pitch at the time Matyunin is accused of making the slanderous remarks.

Albert Gadzhibekov is a native of the North Caucasus region which is known for its hugely volatile nature. The policies of the Russian military along with the prominence of Islamic terrorism and guerrilla warfare, have all served to make the area one of the most dangerous and inhospitable places on earth.

Problems also persist in terms of the enmity between the people of North Caucasus and those from the rest of Russia – particularly the nation’s capital. This issue can be seen in the fact that CSKA Moscow fans still boycott their club’s trips to the likes of Anzhi Makhachkala and Terek Grozny, while the murder of Spartak Moscow fan Yegor Sviridov on the streets of the Russian capital at the hands of North Caucasian migrants led to tens of thousands of Muscovites marching in protest.

The accusations thrown at Alex Matyunin have been denied by the man himself who insists he stands firmly against the racist abuse that is prevalent within Russian football. The young referee’s father – none other than former Dinamo Moscow forward Valeri Matyunin – has responded angrily to the predicament his son has found himself in. Speaking to Sport Express Valeri claimed that while he played for APK Morozovsk his son was not prejudiced because “after a season away we moved to the south, and had no problems. Among his friends were children from Chechnya and Dagestan.”

Despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence against Alex Matyunin there remains an element of doubt cast over proceedings. A gradual swell of opinion has grown against Volga Tver’s acting director Vladimir Illarionov who has found himself accused of highlighting an issue that barely existed beforehand. The fact that Illarionov brought the matter to the attention of an ethics committee the day after the match took place has led to suspicions that a plot against Matyunin was drawn up overnight – as the referee was perceived by Illarionov to have made a number of bad decisions – hence the delayed reaction.

The claims against Volga’s director are at best fanciful, although Valeri Matyunin claims that he is merely attempting to act as a ‘human rights activist’ and to come across like ‘Robin Hood’. Further accusations surrounding Vladimir Illarionov suggest that he publicly hounded Alex Matyunin and is even said to have made a threat that if the referee ever returns to the north east region of Tver then he will find himself ‘in trouble’. However, despite such comments, Volga’s director seems destined to avoid any sort of action or repercussions.

The ethics committee’s decision to suspend Alex Matyunin for 12 months for what they described as an ‘unethical, improper attitude, expressed through the utterance of obscene, insulting and nationalist words’ – as well as imposing a fine – is in itself damning. However the evidence that was offered to the committee was neither watertight nor conclusive.

Despite the claims of Volga Tver’s personnel, there have been counter claims by members of Saturn’s playing and coaching staff who state that the incident never actually took place. There also remains no physical evidence against the referee – in the form of video or even audio. The situation is therefore merely a game of ‘he said, she said’ with the career of a young referee at its heart.

The issues of nationalism within Russian society are indeed pressing and a cause for concern for the nation as a whole. There can be no denying that the issue has steadily flowed into Russian football and strong action needs to be taken to ensure that it is eradicated in the near future.

However there is no need to make a martyr out of Alex Matyunin based upon foundationless evidence and mere tit for tat. The referee has already expressed his desire to take his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, where it seems likely that he will have the final laugh.

By Domm Norris

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona