A lot of people were surprised when Roberto Carlos, the former Real Madrid player and member of the Brazilian 2002 World Cup winning side, decided to join obscure Russian team Anzhi from the volatile Caucasus republic of Dagestan at the start of this season. There wasn’t too much astonishment though when the 38-year-old was subject to racist insults from opposing fans, with a banana first being thrust in his face and then thrown at him on the pitch.
Russia – and not only its football – has a deep-rooted problem with racism. From skinhead killings of immigrants to the kind of racist humor that long went out of fashion in the West, the largest country in the world is not a particularly welcoming place if your skin happens to be black.
The Carlos incident was just the latest in a long list of similar occurrences - monkey noises and racist banners are almost the norm at some grounds when dark-skinned players take the field.
Things even got so bad at one point a few seasons back that Spartak Moscow were forced to hire bodyguards to protect their black players from their own supporters.
“Russia has a different mentality,” Andrei Bikey, the Cameroon international, told the English media after leaving Moscow side Lokomotiv for Reading. “For a person with black skin it is very hard to live there. There is racism….Once, I was followed by three guys, but I managed to escape. In order to protect myself, it would even have been necessary to get a weapon.”
It was the race issue – and Russia’s lack of serious punitive measures for the worst offenders - that led many people to criticize FIFA’s decision to award the country the 2018 World Cup.
It was a fair enough response, and I’m not certain that I would feel like attending the tournament if I was a black fan, but the competition may just prove the incentive for Russia to stamp out racism in the domestic game. After all, following the highly-publicized Carlos incident, the country’s football authorities took some of their strongest measures yet, threatening to force teams to play in front of empty stadiums as punishment for future similar occurrences.
Stuff like this was fairly common at English stadiums when I was growing up in the 1980s. Cyril Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Viv Anderson - the first black footballers to play high-profile professional football in modern England – were greeted by monkey noises and bananas all over the country. There was also widespread shock when Anderson became the first black player to pull on an England shirt.
But in England, the first black footballers sprang from English society: they were representatives of one of the first generations of Afro-Caribbean males to come of age in Britain, and it was inevitable that some of them would end up playing for their local professional teams. Had they not, then there would have really been something seriously wrong with British society.
The black footballers turning out for Spartak, CSKA and so on every weekend are, for those Russians who have never been abroad (the vast majority) truly and utterly alien. Many of them will have never spoken to a black person; all of them will have grown up with racist jokes and stereotypes as the norm. It’s hardly surprising that racism is so prevalent at football stadiums.
So the World Cup, when it eventually rolls around, can only help. It will be, in other words – a short, sharp shock. Russia will be forced, like it or not, to adapt to black fans and sides. At least for a month. It might not be a cure-all, but it will be a start. It already seems to be having an effect – just recently, Russian state TV’s weekly round-up of the English Premier League was presented by one of the country’s very few “black Russians.” His sudden appearance on the screen is unlikely to have been coincidental. It may have been a cynical move, but positive discrimination is undoubtedly a good move in this case.
That’s the optimistic way of looking at things, of course. It could all go terrible wrong, with television coverage of occurrences like the Carlos banana incident irrevocably damaging Russia’s already poor world image. That, I would assume, is something Russian authorities would be eager to avoid at all costs. They have a lot of work to do.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).