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Can Russian Soccer Resolve Its Racism Problem Before 2018 World Cup?

Fans wave a Nazi flag in the stands of Spartak Moscow supporters during a match against Shinnik Yaroslavl in Yaroslavl in 2013.
Fans wave a Nazi flag in the stands of Spartak Moscow supporters during a match against Shinnik Yaroslavl in Yaroslavl in 2013.

MOSCOW -- Fans displaying neo-Nazi symbols. Racist chants aimed at players from the North Caucasus. Hooligans attacking nonwhites on a train.

These are just a few of the 200 racist incidents committed by Russian soccer fans between 2012 and 2014 that were documented in a recent report titled "A Time For Action: Incidents Of Discrimination In Russian Football."

The report was completed by the Sova Center, a Moscow-based racism-monitoring group and the Fare Network, an international organization fighting discrimination in soccer. And its findings illustrated the persistent problem of racism among soccer fans as Russia prepares to host the World Cup in 2018.

After fans displayed a Nazi flag at a match in Moscow on April 5, Sepp Blatter, the chief of FIFA, soccer's governing world body, said there is still “a lot of work to be done” before 2018.

With just over three years remaining until Russia hosts the World Cup, Moscow has only made small moves to clamp down on racism in soccer.

"There is no plan yet,” said Pavel Klymenko, Eastern Europe development officer for Fare Network, which is seeking to advise the Russian Sports Ministry and Football Union on the issue. “I would say no concrete measures have been designed yet to tackle the problem. Very initial steps [have been] taken -- I would say symbolic steps -- that have to be followed by real action.”

Since Russia was awarded the World Cup in December 2010, the country's Football Union (RFU), the Interior Ministry, and the government have implemented hefty fines and spectator bans for racist fan behavior.

The new punitive measures have been dished out widely.

Soccer fans brawl during a match between FC Arsenal Tula and FC Torpedo Moscow in Tula on April 5.
Soccer fans brawl during a match between FC Arsenal Tula and FC Torpedo Moscow in Tula on April 5.

Just this season, Torpedo Moscow, a particularly troublesome club in Russia's Premier League, has been fined about 1.5 million rubles ($29,000) for various infractions, including racism and crowd violence.

Torpedo has also been ordered to play five games at home without spectators for separate incidents of monkey chanting, racist abuse, and unfurling a Nazi flag. Additionally, it has played three home games with certain sections of the stands closed after fans abused black players from an opposing team.

Natalya Yudina, deputy head of the Sova Center, said the measures are "really not enough," adding that there are still no mechanisms to punish racism in the lower leagues.

"These incidents have not happened less in the last two seasons," Yudina said.

The Sova Center/Fare Network report caught the attention of FIFA, as well as the Russian authorities.

Both are hoping to avoid the embarrassment Ukraine and Poland suffered in advance of the 2014 European Championships, when the BBC aired Stadiums Of Hate, a controversial special report on soccer racism in those two countries.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko: "Monitoring everything"
Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko: "Monitoring everything"

On April 8, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko noted that FIFA was "monitoring everything" in the run-up to 2018 and chided Torpedo fans for “hurting [Russia’s] image" in comments to R-Sport.

"At the World Cup, there will be a completely different system of ticket sales, different controls, a different structure of fans -- after all, up to a million foreign guests are coming. Even so, we are creating tension in the football community," Mutko said.

On March 30, the Russian Football Union announced that it would appoint a new antiracism inspector. The post is expected to coordinate and deploy a team of monitors at "particularly dangerous" games. The new appointee, Aleksei Tolkachev, told the TASS news agency that his precise functions would be delineated at the end of April.

Blatter applauded the appointment, as well as punitive measures, but noted that “education is equally important.”

Sova and Fare also recommend a longer-term and substantive antiracism plan, including “educational programs for schools and universities using football as a tool for intercultural understanding.”

This was echoed by Vadim Sidorov, the co-founder of Flint’s Crew, a well-known -- but now defunct -- fan group for the team Moscow Spartak.

"The accent needs to be more on educational work," Sidorov said. "If people don't understand the essence of the question, then they will continue doing what they've been doing, regardless of how many police there are."

Klymenko adds that the push for educational measures hinges on progressive expertise in the government and among the soccer authorities.

This, however, is complicated by the fact that the line between the soccer authorities and nationalist fan groups is often blurred. In May 2012, for example, the well-known soccer coach Andrei Tikhonov was photographed with a woman wearing a "White Power" T-shirt.

She had won the shirt at a Miss Spartak beauty pageant organized by a far-right association of fans, according to Sova and Fare.

In June, representatives from the government, the soccer authorities, civil society, and law enforcement will hold a conference to discuss additional measures to combat racism, according to Yevgeny Dzichkovsky, a spokesman for the Russian Football Union, the sport's governing body in the country.

Dzichkovsky added that the authorities are taking the issue seriously.

"Everyone’s looking forward to the World Cup,” he said. "It will be the Russian establishment in the stands. It won’t be hooligans."

Likewise, Sidorov notes that Russian soccer has made huge leaps since the gritty 1990s.

"Every other fan wore big boots and had a shaved head," he said. "Now there are remarkably few of them now -- remarkably. You get idiots everywhere and measures are being taken. We aren't a country of savages."

But civil society groups like Sova and Fare see 2018 as a golden opportunity to make major headway.

"We have to work on this,” said Yudina. “Of course, if no one draws attention to it, it will just continue to happen."