Diversity, Tolerance & Politics: Sharp Lessons From Russia 2018

by Okanga Okanga II
17th Jun 2018

Russia 2018 is now done and dusted. The airports should just be easing off as the last remaining visitors to the former Soviet Empire, for the just-concluded showpiece, head out. Few would disagree that it was a feast of absolute beauty. From the colours of Nigeria’s Super Eagles to the cynosure of President Kolinda; from the variety of goals to the numerous upsets; from the Vikings clap of thunder to the ebullient dance of Shaku Shaku, launched in Nigeria and spotlighted by one of the finest artisans of the showpiece, Paul Pogba; it was, indeed, a tourney to remember. We must not forget the side attraction of “the 12 cave-boys of Thailand,” perhaps the most phenomenal football-related tale told of the Southeast Asian nation, which fatefully coincided with the world’s foremost football fiesta; a story that united the world in prayer just as the World Cup divided her in flags. There was something for everyone this season, victor or vendor.

Perhaps, it was not expected to be all so sweet. Not everyone – perhaps, for good reason – supported Russia’s hosting rights, in the first place; and even when the stage was set for the feast, there were still painful distractions: a diplomatic fracas between the host nation and the West part of the undesirous headliners. Yet, there was another peculiar factor that many feared could actually steal the jewel off the crown of this iconic sporting event.

Going into this tournament, palpable fears existed that the World Cup could be rocked by racial and homophobic tension. These fears evoke no surprise. The world’s largest country, despite being a global leader in many ways, has struggled to eradicate racism from football. World football’s governing body, FIFA, must have itself feared that apart from the host nation – the least-rated national team in the latest FIFA rankings (70) – suffering a spirit-dampening early exit, the racist inclinations of many of her fans could plunge things into the abyss. It was so bad that FIFA had to give referees extensive powers to abandon matches if racist activity reached a state of toxicity. As fate would have it, things turned out differently. Not only did Russia go all the way to the quarter-finals - where they only lost on penalties to Croatia - the Medusa of racism was unsighted.

Indeed, apart from an isolated incident of a fan groping a reporter on live TV in the early stages of the tournament, there was a paucity of negatives. How did they manage it? How did Russia host the world without p***ing off the world? History can indeed be re-written.

Just in 2010, the half-Russian Nigeria ex-international, Osaze Odemwingie, was the victim of racist publicity perpetrated by fans of one of Russia’s most prominent club sides, Locomotive Moscow, the club he moved to the English Premier League from. In 2012, a fan of the same Russian club threw a banana at former Blackburn Rovers of England and Congolese center-back, Christopher Samba, during a Russian Premier League game with his club Anzhi Makhachkala. A year earlier, the world-famous Brazilian left-back, Roberto Carlos, received the banana pelting whilst playing for Anzhi away to Krylya Sovetov in Samara. In 2013, another of Russia’s most famous club sides, CSKA Moscow, was punished for racist chanting against Ivorian legend, Yaya Toure, who represented Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League. As recently as May 2018, barely weeks to the World Cup, an annual report from the Anti-Discrimination Fare Network and the Moscow-based Sova Centre showed that there were 19 incidents of abusive chants in that Russian football season alone. Such incidents were just too pervasive.

Indeed, in April 2018, FIFA opened disciplinary proceedings against Russia after its fans racially abused several black players – including Paul Pogba – during a friendly against France at the St. Petersburg Stadium. FIFA would eventually fine the Russian Football Union 30,000 Swiss francs ($30,000) for this incident – a paltry punishment in the view of some. This incident was, perhaps, so embarrassing to the country and its image-perfect President, at such a crucial time, that it vowed to crack down on racism; a departure from the hitherto laissez-faire approach adopted by Russian law enforcement. No doubt, the FIFA mandate to referees, which would have caused more embarrassment, would have played a huge part.

That crackdown turned out to be successful as racism was anything but a topic during the great event. In sharp contrast, the Russian public, both in the stadia and on the streets tried to be on their best behaviour. As it turns out, visitors were received with open arms and treated with oiled palms. Perhaps, this was a classic case of “Big Brother is watching you.” Whatever the case, by reorientation or coercion, the Russian state managed to effectively curtail racist conduct from the greatest sporting event since the Gladiators of Rome.

Perhaps, it was only a fitting conclusion that the big price was won on Russian soil by the most diverse team in the competition; a team that had most recently suffered racism directly at the hands of some far-right Russian fans. Team France, comprised largely of players of African descent – black and Arab, Muslim and Christian alike – was accompanied to the last four by two other teams with prevalent black DNA: England and Belgium (England’s left-back Danny Rose is reported to have told his family members not to bother coming to Russia, for the reason of racism).

The only all-Caucasian team in the last 4 was Croatia – a nation that itself emerged from a devastating period of ethnic cleansing in the Former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, with her all-embracing President lighting up the scenes.

It is also fitting that this World Cup happened at a time of protectionism and heightened diversity tensions in many parts of the world, including Myanmar, Nigeria, the European Union and, of course, the United States. The composition of the last four also sheds light on the fact that migration is not altogether such a bad thing. Hypothetically, if the tournament's best player, Luka Modric, took asylum in some other country at the time of the barbaric Yugoslavian arms conflict of the 90's, he may have ended up donning the colours of that country, like the Swiss duo of Granit Xhaka and Xhedran Shaqiri, both erstwhile Albanian refugees. It also speaks volumes that the winners, France, have themselves now been led to two World Cup victories – two decades apart – by two Muslims of African descent (Zinedine Zidane and Paul Pogba).

It was the “best World Cup” ever, remarked FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the end. “Perfect” was French President Emmanuel Macron’s choice. They would appear correct in many ways: the quality of football and unpredictability of results, the resplendent colours, the harmony, the multi-culturalism, the fanfare, even the unsettled GOAT debate prove this. Some fans even re-enacted the vuvuzela treat from South Africa. Champagne corks were popping, Croatian pains were drowned in the rain, new friends were made and closed boundaries crossed, but from the Baltic Province of Kaliningrad to the Luzhniki epicenter, the main lesson of the Russian experience is that the world can suppress racism and other prejudices IF the leaders genuinely want to. It is only a matter of political convenience, one suspects, that the powers that be let these vices prevail.

One of the cardinal principles that FIFA holds dear is political non-interference in football. You get heavily sanctioned for breaching this principle (Nigeria rests on the tip of the spear now). Regardless, whatever cards Russia's politicians played to curtail racism at this World Cup – just as there were no sprouts of Xenophobia in South Africa 2010 – they have set a standard that must prevail beyond this transient event. We have learned from Russia 2018 that if the world’s leaders genuinely desire to curb prejudice, discrimination and intolerance, they can. Little wonder, a former Nigerian dictator once decreed: “If insurgency lasts more than 24 hours, the government has a hand in it.”

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