The swift arrest of a supporter who threw a banana at Roberto Carlos during a Russian Premier League game last month in Samara, the nationalist hotbed which is also the home to Krylia Sovetov, could be a significant point in the battle against racism in Russia.
Racism has long posed a particularly troubling and sensitive question which Russian football has struggled to tackle. The hosting of the 2018 World Cup has shone a fresh spotlight on the country’s football and with it created a sense of urgency over the need to get to grips with a range of issues, from racism to youth football and hooliganism.
The incident last month, after which Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos walked off the pitch in protest during his team Anzhi Makhachkala’s 3-0 win, was the second since the former Real Madrid man arrived in Russia earlier this year.
A banana was thrown at the 38-year-old on his Anzhi debut against Zenit in March, landing the champions with a fine. The club from St. Petersburg have a reputation; their ‘ultras’ have caused the side in trouble before, when in 2008 Zenit were fined €40,000 for their fans’ behaviour after they hurled bananas at three black French players. Former Zenit and current Russia coach Dick Advocaat once said that he would not sign black players for fear of being attacked by the club’s fans for doing so.
Advocaat’s reticence was well founded. The Dutchman could look upon the infamous and shocking banner displayed by Lokomotiv Moscow supporters thanking West Brom for signing their Nigerian forward Peter Odemwingie, portraying a banana. While Cameroon defender Andre Bikey used to carry a gun with him during his time at the Moscow club. In 2007, Welliton’s signing by Spartak Moscow was met with displeasure by their fans, who unfurled a message to the Brazilian reading simply “monkey go home.” Thankfully for the Red Whites he did not – the forward has finished as top scorer in the Russian Premier League twice since.
The Russian Football Union, in its defence, has expressed its determination to tackle the problem, giving cause for optimism, even if the 2018 World Cup hosts still have some way to go.
"Black players feel the open racism there," said Odemwingie. "It’s a minority group, but it really makes you sick."
Odemwingie’s comments are instructive. It is not so much that Russia is a country particularly prone to racism – there are parts of London and New York where black people could find white men still making shocking comments about those of a different colour. The problem Russia faces is that it is far further back on the scale of development than its European rivals, and therefore, has yet to make a football ground an inhospitable place for a racist.
Yet the member of the crowd who threw a banana at Roberto Carlos in Samara last month was arrested within 24 hours. The Russian Premier League brought in a new ruling last year which compelled the competition’s clubs to install modern video technology in their stadiums, lest they be denied a license to compete in the league.
Thanks to that change this particular fan was found promptly. And while this is just a small step, it is significant. This individual had managed to throw the banana onto the pitch because he was standing near the centre of the stadium, far from where the ultras at Sovetov are usually positioned, and therefore police did not expect a banana to be thrown from that area. The swift response from the use of CCTV promises to mean the police will not need to anticipate from where bananas may be thrown in future; now the authorities can root out offenders quickly, and the crucial factor of deterrence should start to have an impact.
This is part of an ongoing process to alienate Russia’s minority who use football as a vehicle for their hatred. Every country has fans like this; but some have enacted legislation and brought about changes which mean groups cannot use the beautiful game to promote their bigoted agendas. Russia is making progress, albeit slowly. And the country is keen to point out that its top flight is just 20 years old, and comparing it with the English Premier League or Spanish La Liga does not do it justice. Therefore, given that racism still has yet to be kicked out of Europe’s leading leagues entirely, the opprobrium sometimes given to Russia is harsh.
The will to take on the problem is there. Russian Football Union chief Alex Zorkov responded to the latest incident by expressing fury at the behaviour of the Krylia Sovetov fans, whilst the head of the organising committee for the 2018 World Cup, Alexey Sorokin, expressed similar determination to eliminate racism from the country’s game. The Football Union’s anger led the organisation to convene a swift meeting to determine a range of new sanctions for offending clubs, which include playing up to three games in an empty stadium or even in another city altogether.
A league evolving as fast as Russia’s, which now sits seventh in UEFA’s coefficient rankings, and whose clubs regularly delve deeper and deeper in European competition, needs to reform and move in line with the world’s major leagues. For as much as anything else, the country’s top flight needs to ensure that it can attract sponsorship and TV deals with organisations who will not want to be associated with racism. Russia’s growth is intrinsically linked to these areas, where it hopes to take huge steps forward in the years ahead. Both commercially and ethically, Russian football has, needs and wants to change.
It is all too easy to tarnish Russia as a country of racists, but that would be wrong, just as it would be misleading to label the English a country of drunks or Italy a land of crooks. Progress is being made and it is often slow, but Russia will meet its goals by the time the 2018 World Cup rolls into town.