Can we have a racism-free World Cup?

With Russia's history, it's not looking likely

11th June 2018

It’s that time again. The one time in every four years when the word England gets an extra syllable. The time that all your Welsh mates are suddenly buying Tunisia shirts, and saying that Belgium is their favourite to win. Baddiel and Skinner are carted out of whatever long-term holding cell they are put in for three-and-a-half years at a time. You’ve probably already seen three shirtless men with bulldog tattoos. That’s right, it’s the World Cup.

Some see it as a celebration of world cultures that football brings together; others see it as a way to wear their nationalistic ideals on their sleeve like Harry Kane’s captain’s armband. Most of us just use it as an excuse to get pissed in the daytime, to be honest. And while most England fans have got used to losing to the likes of Iceland and never making it out of the last 16, we’re starting to get a little bit hopeful that we might just cause an upset.

Germany lifts the World Cup in 2014
Germany currently hold the World Cup, but will they still reign supreme at the end of July? 📸 Agência Brasil

And, according to streaming service Deezer, with 60% of our population believing that an official World Cup song can have a positive effect on the national team, and streams of Fat Les up by 129%, England have to do well, right?

But, there’s a darker side to football. A side that we thought was left in the ’80s; that some of us never thought we’d see in our lifetime. Racism has no place in sport or society, but still, in 2018, there are problems.

Russian fans want to beat English fans at their own game, but the game is hooliganism, not football

Russia has a history of racist abuse and fan disturbances, including the racist chants Moscow’s CSKA supporters aimed at Manchester City’s Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure in 2014 and causing fights with military precision at the last European Championships in France in 2016. While their verbal and physical abuse are currently distinctly aimed at different groups of people, a crossover is almost inevitable.

Russian fans talked to the BBC about wanting to beat the English fans at their own game, but the game is hooliganism, not football. Basing themselves on the violent Millwall fans of the ’80s, beating up English fans gives the extreme Russians a sense of pride, but their flying fists could easily land elsewhere when they find that Dave the accountant from Chesire isn’t putting up a good enough fight or if someone reacts to a monkey chant aimed their way.

Raheem Sterling
Raheem Sterling wears a “Respect” bib, but is that where UEFA’s anti-racism campaign stops? 📸 Biser Todorov

At the Under-17s World Cup last year, also held in Russia, England’s team managed to lift the trophy, but not without difficulty. Star striker Rhian Brewster and his teammates battled through racist abuse from opposition players, showing that it is not just fans who are a problem.

Many of the problems lie with footballing bodies like FIFA and UEFA. While they continue to issue meagre fines or stadium bans that can be avoided to teams accused of racist abuse, it will continue. Larger fines, bans and worse need to be put in place in order to stop this problem from spreading, but nothing seems to be happening. For example, Nicklas Bendtner’s fine for wearing sponsored underpants was eight times more than Villareal were fined for their fans throwing a banana at Brazilian left-back Dani Alves.

England full-back Danny Rose has made the headlines this week, after telling his family to steer clear of coming to watch him play in Russia, over fears of them being subjected to racist abuse. The stories are endless.

This week on The Overtake we’re trying to understand why racism happens at home and away. Why is our own media victimising Raheem Sterling? Is football the only sport where the problem of racism is so prominent? And is there a glimmer of hope and good that football can offer in the midst of all this racism and fighting? We’ll find out as the tournament gets closer.

More and more players are being racially abused during matches, and we can only hope that the abuse will let up under the media scrutiny at the World Cup, so players and fans can enjoy the tournament without trouble — that’s, of course, apart from England fans, who will inevitably be sent home crying after losing to Iceland again.

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11th June 2018