The issue played prominently – though, obviously, not decisively – during the 2018 World Cup bidding campaign when it was shrugged aside as a mere inconvenience by senior officials, including Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko who is also a member of FIFA’s executive committee.
However, the ongoing string of high-profile incidents involving Peter Odemwingie, Roberto Carlos and, most recently, Chris Samba have revealed pledges back then about ‘meaningful negotiation’ with fan groups as empty promises.
Now it seems the clubs are starting to take the lead – perhaps mindful of the immediate risk of disciplinary action in European competition from UEFA – and are dragging the Russian Football Union, the league and the Sports Ministry along in their wake.
Last month Spartak Moscow owner Leonid Fedun announced his intention of funding a fans education programme aimed at stamping out racism and anti-Semitism. Fedun was prompted into action after a game in which Spartak’s Nigerian striker, Emanuel Emenike, gestured angrily back at Dynamo fans who had been racially abusing him in a Moscow derby.
Fedun says: “This foundation will undertake specific special public actions aimed at instilling a good atmosphere in our stadia so that fans, even in the most hard-core chanting, do not refer to nationalistic and race issues.”
No-one doubts that Spartak need an improved atmosphere on the terraces. Supporters include a notoriously nationalistic band of ‘ultras’ who make a point of celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday. In late 2010, thousands of them descended on Red Square chanting racist slogans in protest at police inaction over the killing of their number, allegedly by hooligan fans from the Caucasus.
Fedun has also broken the pact of silence which has endured over Zenit St Petersburg’s famous reluctance to sign black players. Coincidentally, former Zenit owner Sergey Fursenko, is now president of the RFU.
Simultaneously, the RFU has created a dedicated task force to tackle racism. This comprises members of the organisation’s ethics committee. One of the first manifestations of a change in attitude was a closed-doors order against Torpedo Moscow after fans racially abused Ivorian-born defender Dacosta Goore of Alania Vladikavkaz.
These moves have been welcomed by Mutko who, as noted, has always evinced a comparatively relaxed attitude on racist behaviour.
He said: “I agree with Fedun that clubs should take an active position. They shouldn’t shout at someone: ‘Hey you, officials, solve this problem, pass some law or something!’ . . . However, I believe the process of preparing for the World Cup will force through solutions to these problems. Fans, cities, stadium managers and society itself will all become involved.”
By 2018 progress may be seen. The task is no easy one. Not everyone has yet woken up to the need for reform.
Former World Cup goalkeeper Sergey Ovchinnikov is one of the ‘refuseniks.’ He says: “The theme of racism in media is a little bit exaggerated. It is in all competitions. We can never change people. This is the way fans express their protest.”
By Keir Radnedge