With all eyes on Russia for the World Cup, officials aim to stamp out racism in the stands
Russia's 'anti-racism inspector' trying to mitigate bad fan behaviour
With the World Cup about to kick off this week in 11 Russian cities, the country's notoriously poorly behaved soccer fans are facing as much pressure as their beleaguered national team to up their game for the tournament.
FIFA, soccer's governing body, is vowing it will not tolerate any hint of racist behaviour, and Russian soccer has enlisted one of the country's most influential sporting figures to crack the whip.
"Sometimes, a small group of people do stupid things," said retired Russian player Alexei Smertin. "We need to punish people if they do something wrong."
Over a 16-year playing career, Smertin played professionally in Russia, France and England, and captained Russia's national team. But for the past year, he's spent more time in classrooms and in the stands, serving as Russian soccer's official "anti-racism inspector."
He admitted he may be tackling his toughest leadership challenge yet.
"I've been in football since I was born," he said from the sidelines during a recent game between Russian and Turkish fans in Moscow. "And for me, this is... as difficult as when I was on the pitch."
'I can't guarantee 100 per cent'
Smertin's job over the past year has been to make Russian soccer fans more respectful and courteous; to end ugly incidents of racist chanting; and to rid Russian stadiums of banners and slogans of the far right and neo-Nazism.
"As a captain, I'm used to being responsible for my team, my squad," said Smertin. "But now my squad is not only football players. I have a squad of millions of [fans]."
While he said he is certain Russian fans won't embarrass themselves or their country as potentially half the planet watches the tournament, the worry is still clearly there.
"I can't guarantee 100 per cent. But the people are informed. They know this is the most important event we've ever held in Russia. It's a great chance to showcase our warm culture."
Russian soccer has been plagued for years by racist incidents in the stands directed at opposing players with darker skin. Just weeks before the start of the World Cup, Russia's soccer union was fined over $40,000 Cdn after fans made monkey noises at black players during a game against France in March.
The Zenit club from St. Petersburg has been hit with fines or sanctions three times in the past year because of bad fan behaviour. In a recent incident, thousands of fans chanted an offensive line from a Russian pop song ("They killed a Negro") as a player from Guinea lay hurt on the ground.
'A good signal'
Smertin credits monitoring work done by his officials, who are now in the stands at many Russian games, in helping report cases of offensive fan behaviour and punishing it.
"I think it's a good signal for Zenit," Smertin said of the fines imposed on the St. Petersburg club. The team will also be forced to play a game in July in front of an empty stadium, which will cost the the club further.
"They know they will lose a lot of money because of people. I see a positive way to interrupt, to stop those actions," said Smertin.
Even so, some people are still worried. The British media has reported widely on comments made by English national player Danny Rose, who said he did not want his family to come to Russia for the World Cup because of the racial abuse they could face.
It's debatable just how sincerely Russian fans are taking the anti-racism messages.
"Unfortunately in Russia, we have a high level of racist and xenophobic stereotypes," said Natalia Yudina of the anti-racism group SOVA, which is based in Moscow.
Her group tracks racist behaviour by Russian fans and publishes an annual report. While the number of incidents of fans unveiling racist banners in the stands fell last year, according to SOVA's research, the incidents of racist chants actually increased.
Yudina said more intense video monitoring of fan behaviour in the stands could mean some fans simply switched to chants, because banners are easier to spot.
"[The] Russian national tradition is not to [talk] about the problem in general. And racism is one of the problems," said Yudina. "This fear of something foreign is part of much of our traditional society. And 'foreign' is defined as those who physically appear different."
She said this sentiment has been fueled by the high number of immigrants moving to Russia from former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and concerns that they are taking Russian jobs.
There's also a political dimension, said Yudina. "The Russian government has taken the direction of patriotism, that we support traditional values — unlike the rest of Europe — and this also fuels xenophobia."
For the World Cup, FIFA has empowered referees to halt matches should behaviour such as racist chanting occur.
The London-based FARE network, which fights racism and homophobia in soccer, has released a "diversity guide" for international fans travelling to Russia.
"Russians can be less sensitive to racist language and often lack tact when communicating with black or Asian people," says the guide. "The word historically used to refer to black people is 'negr' which might sound close to the 'n-word' but is still widely used and considered neutral by Russians."
Another section of the guide discusses the likelihood of more frequent encounters with Russia police. "Identity checks based on ethnic profiling by police are common, especially if you appear Central Asian or Arab," it reads.
Moscow, which is home to many international universities, has hosted university students from Africa and Asia for decades and parts of the city have a cosmopolitan feel.
Outside the People's Friendship University, I met several students from Africa who have lived in Moscow for several years, and gave their impressions of how Russians view foreigners.
"In Moscow, maybe [racism is] in their heart, but you don't see it in the streets. It's rarely here," said Terry Nyambe, from Namibia, who has lived in the city for five years while studying medicine.
Olive Zamba from Malawi said she has only experienced one overtly racist incident during her time in the city.
"I had to move into a new room with a Russian girl, and she wouldn't have it — 'No, I would not live with you.' Luckily, the administrator was like, 'This is an international university, so if you don't want to live with someone from a different country, then you have to go live in an apartment.'"
Alexei Smertin admitted that educating young people about racism is not a common feature in Russian schools. He said his goal is to teach "a young generation... what you are not allowed to do."
More immediately, though, his hope is that Russian fans don't embarrass themselves — and their country — with the world watching.