Richard van Poortvleit: Racism, what racism? Russian problem will not go away until it is educated

Reading the Russian and English reaction to CSKA Moscow’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League could not have been more different. While the London based press concentrated on the alleged racist taunts directed at Yaya Toure – the topic was hardly mentioned by their Russian counterparts, who preferred to concentrate on CSKA’s failings, which now leaves them needing a near miracle to reach the knockout stages.

It is often the case that when something negative happens in Russia, one of the preferred options is to ignore what has occurred and hope the problem goes away. This would help to explain why there has been so little written about the Yaya Toure incident in the country. Or alternatively, the Russian press may not have actually realised anything had happened, or not deemed it worthy of any column inches.

When looking at racism in Russian football, the main stumbling block has been acknowledging there is a problem in the first place. For too long Russia has tried to find excuses, rather than try and tackle the issue once and for all.

In April 2011, a Zenit St Petersburg ‘fan’ waved a banana at Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos. However, the club was fined just $10,000 – pocket change for a club who were able to shell out in the region of $100 million to purchase Hulk and Axel Witsel in September 2012. There was not even a threat of a points deduction or stadium closure, which just helps to emphasize the fact that the Russian authorities don’t take the problem seriously.

Compare this to the fall out of Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper, Anton Shunin being hit by a flare, thrown by a Zenit ‘fan’ in November 2012. On this occasion, Dynamo were awarded a technical 3-0 victory as the match was abandoned, while Zenit were ordered to play two matches behind closed doors and were fined $38,000.

I have been attending Russian football matches for over a decade and thankfully I have not encountered racist taunting or chants on a regular basis. The problem is not nearly as widespread at football games as the British press would have one believe – but it does exist.

Part of the problem is a lack on education amongst Russian football fans. A couple of years ago I sat with Zenit St Petersburg’s fans when they visited the Luzhniki Stadium to play Spartak Moscow. With me was a friend I have known for over a decade, who hails from St. Petersburg, but was educated in the UK.

Half way through the match, a dozen or so Zenit ‘fans’ started to break out into a monkey chant – directed at one of the Spartak’s black players. My friend joined in, to which I asked him “what do you think you are doing?” – his response was to immediately apologise for his actions, as he did not realise the severity of what he was doing. The problem here is if a university educated fan, who has spent a long time living in the west, does not realise that monkey chanting is unacceptable, then how can one expect the tens thousands of fans who have had little exposure to the west and foreigners in general to know what is right and wrong?

There are a hard core of racist football fans in Russia, just as there are in almost every country in Europe. No matter how hard one tries, it is all but impossible to change their social viewpoints. Where as in England, these ‘supporters’ are seen socially unacceptable due to their beliefs, in Russia, they are admired, mainly by youths, from around the ages of 16 to 22 who see this as a normal way of following their team. In my opinion, it is this group that the Russian Football Union needs to target to try and make them see that racist and homophobic chanting has no place in football. This however, is easier said than done.

During the 70’s and 80’s, racism was rife in English football and fans would routinely boo black players. Thankfully things have changed for the better, due to campaigns such as ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ and ‘Kick Racism out of Football’, which have done sterling jobs in trying to change the attitude’s of football fans in England. Racism is now very rare across football grounds in England and, importantly, it has become socially unacceptable.

Unfortunately, there are no such campaigns in Russia at the moment, or if there are, they receive almost no publicity.

The day after the alleged racist allegations against Yaya Toure, CSKA Moscow released a photo on the front page of their website with Seydou Doumbia holding a UEFA ‘No to Racism’ pendant, with the headline ‘PFC CSKA against Racism’. I just get the feeling that had this alleged incident not occurred, then the club wouldn’t be doing so much to promote this anti-racism campaign and it is merely a PR exercise to try and gain some positive publicity.

The spotlight is firmly on Russia as they prepare to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup and this will only become more intense as the countdown to the opening match draws nearer. Russian football has a massive image problem in the west, where it is seen as racist and homophobic. The pressure is now on the countries authorities and clubs to try and finally take some serious action and try and eradicate these serious problems.

Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.