LONDON – Russian football is plagued by a racist and far-right extremist fan culture that threatens the safety of visitors to the 2018 World Cup, according to a report provided to The Associated Press.
Researchers from the Moscow-based SOVA Center and the Fare network, which helps to prosecute racism cases for European football's governing body UEFA, highlighted more than 200 cases of discriminatory behavior linked to Russian football over two seasons.
"It shows a really quite gruesome picture of a domestic league which is full of aspects of racism, xenophobia: The far-right play a significant role in the fan culture," Fare executive director Piara Powar said in an interview with the Associated Press.
The report collated dozens of cases where fans carried out campaigns and sold far-right merchandise to collect money for imprisoned neo-Nazis. It provides a detailed breakdown of discriminatory incidents around matches, pinpointing 72 displays of neo-Nazi symbols, 22 acts against people from the Caucasus region, which includes Dagestan and Chechnya, and five occasions of abuse against black people. The report, which covers 2012-14, does not include an apparent rise in the targeting of black players being documented this season, Fare said.
In the week when the football world was focused on the rescheduling of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, this report — entitled "Time for Action" — underlines that the next World Cup will be held in Russia in three years' time, not the Middle East.
"Our hope in Russia in the lead up to 2018 is we get action taken to protect the safety of fans and of players," Powar added. "Players have already said they will walk off if they hear racism. That is a danger. We want that to be addressed in advance."
The Russian Football Union and World Cup 2018 organizers both declined to comment when asked to by the AP.
The report was sent on Friday to FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Without referencing the report's existence, a post on Blatter's Twitter account said on Friday: "In December, FIFA's (anti-discrimination) Task Force presented concrete action plan to tackle discrimination in build-up to 2018 World Cup."
The first systematic study of fan racism in Russian football shows the scope of the discriminatory behavior that thrives at football despite President Vladimir Putin pledging to address the issue.
"We see it and we believe it is a problem and unfortunately we have quite a number of such problems," Putin said in December 2010 within hours of Russia winning the FIFA vote.
Highlighting "xenophobia, racism and other national and religious intolerance," Putin added: "Russia is fighting it just like any other country in the world. We will do it persistently in future."
But the report argues that not enough is being done by Russian state and football authorities. The intelligence and insights gathered will now be handed over to world football's governing body by Powar, who sits on FIFA's anti-discrimination task force.
"FIFA need to push the LOC (local organizing committee) harder, we think the government needs to work with the (Russian) FA and the LOC to make sure that things are getting done," Powar said.
The report says "it will be difficult to ensure the safety of visitors" to the World Cup unless Russia implements a series of measures:
- apply sanctions for discriminatory conduct consistently
- create a plan to take on far-right groups,
- prioritize educating Russians about xenophobia and actively promote diversity in World Cup host cities.
"Russia needs to get a point where people can be assured if they go they won't be attacked," Powar said.
Some of the Russian groups have links with racist organizations, a factor in the prevalence of abuse against black players and fans from Russia's own ethnic minorities. While some fans shout racist abuse for political reasons, many others see it simply as another tactic to distract the opposition's star players, according to longtime Spartak Moscow fan Dmitry Dedkov.
"A good player on the team of your main or chief opponent is an irritant, like a red rag to a bull," he told the AP. "They can insult an African or any other player."
The report acknowledges rules were implemented in 2011 designed to combat discrimination at games, and welcomes the introduction of a "Spectator Law" in 2014, but that only regulates behavior inside venues.
The number of incidents of racism around stadiums has not decreased despite the threat of sanctions, including fines or stadium closures, the report says.
"This is not surprising because the boundaries of what is accepted in the football fan scene are blurry," the report says. "Well-known coaches and players have photos taken with fans wearing swastika tattoos or T-shirts with Nazi symbols, and well-known singers sing songs with them in the stands."
The report particularly highlights offensive conduct by fans of Moscow clubs CSKA, Dinamo, Lokomotiv and Spartak, and Zenit St. Petersburg. There is a prevalence of neo-Nazi and fascist symbols being adopted by far-right fan groups, including swastikas and Celtic crosses, and banners such as "White Pride World Wide."
"This is not surprising given the fact that xenophobic attitudes inside the fan community correlate directly with high levels of ethnic xenophobia in Russian society in general which have been developing intensively since the early 2000s," the report says.
The report does highlight cases where UEFA has taken against Russian clubs involved in European competitions. Monkey chants aimed at Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure by CSKA Moscow fans during a Champions League game earned the Russian club the first of two UEFA racism sanctions in the 2013-14 season. That prompted the Ivory Coast player to warn: "If we aren't confident at the World Cup, coming to Russia, we don't come."
Although only five cases of abuse against black people were recorded by Fare in 2012-14, Powar attributed that to the lack of stadium spotters to uncover the full scale of the problem. The report only covers until May 2014, and there have been high-profile incidents since then.
"One of the things we are picking up from our preliminary monitoring this season is the abuse of black players — Africans and those from Latin America," Powar said.
There have been cases where the Russian Football Union punishes the victims.
FC Rostov midfielder Guelor Kanga, from Gabon, was himself banned for three matches for an offensive gesture to Spartak Moscow fans who racially abused him in a Russian Premier League game in December. Spartak was only fined 70,000 rubles ($1,300) for "the chanting by fans of insulting expressions," a charge which usually refers to swearing, rather than the separate offense of racist chanting. That game took place at Moscow's Otkrytye Arena, a 2018 World Cup venue.
Rostov coach Igor Gamula served a five-match sanction for discriminatory comments about black players in his own team.
As the 2014 World Cup was drawing to a close in Brazil last July, Blatter spoke to Putin about making tackling racism a priority in 2018.
Since then, world football's governing body has said it wants to use the Russia tournament to "showcase FIFA's zero-tolerance policy against any form of discrimination."
The report from Fare paints a bleak picture — just five months before the World Cup qualifying draw event in St. Petersburg.
"Racist attitudes and ultra-rightist ideas are widespread among Russian football fans, and it is unlikely that this situation will fundamentally improve in the near future," the report concludes.
AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth contributed to this report from Moscow.