A new racism scandal has rocked Russian football in the run-up to the World Cup – and anxious Moscow authorities are taking it seriously.
The idea of fans targeting black players with monkey chants is haunting Russian football chiefs heading into the June 14 to July 15 celebration of the “beautiful game”.
But racism reared its ugly head on Tuesday when French players Ousmane Dembele and Paul Pogba were targeted during France’s 3-1 friendly win over Russia in St Petersburg.
An AFP photographer heard imitation ape noises aimed at Barcelona forward Dembele, while internet users reported similar abuse from sections of the 50,000 crowd targeting Manchester United’s star Pogba.
Following calls from French sports minister Laura Flessel for “European and international” action, football’s ruling body FIFA is now investigating.
Although the Russian Football Union’s initial response was sceptical – its security council chief said his monitors “did not hear or record anything of the kind” – anti-discrimination inspector Alexei Smertin later said a RFU probe was already underway.
The Russian parliament’s deputy speaker, Igor Lebedev – a sports fanatic who sits on the RFU’s executive committee – addressed racist abuse the way few football officials had done before.
“I want to call on fans to stop this,” he told the Championat sports news site. “This is not just a problem with our fans’ perception of African American and black players.
“The problem is elsewhere: none of this bad behaviour will stop until we start punishing it.”
Russia’s history of all forms of discrimination stretches back to its Soviet era and is rarely tackled head on.
Critics say it is only being fomented by a mix of nationalist and socially conservative Kremlin ideology that at times borders on xenophobia.
Lebedev further appealed to Russians’ sense of patriotism and pride in “our nation’s prestige”.
“Do we want to embarrass the country?” he asked.
‘Ultras’ and bananas
Racism is especially closely associated with football because of the right-wing hooligans and club “ultras” attracted to the game.
The scourge swept across Europe and was especially severe in countries such as England and Italy between the 1970s and 1990s.
This hatred spilled onto Russian football stadiums in the last two decades as clubs began signing African and Latin American players.
One of the starkest episodes saw Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos walk off the pitch in disgust after a banana was thrown his way in 2011.
The Football Against Racism in Europe anti-discrimination network reported 89 racist and far-right incidents at Russian games in the 2016-17 season.
But for French former World Cup winner Lilian Thuram, nothing concrete is being done to resolve the problem: “Is there any real will on the part of FIFA, the Russian federation or society in general to address this issue ?
“If this happens during the World Cup, will the referee stop the game? I doubt it. We will only see how serious FIFA are if they decide to stop a game.”
Anti-discrimination officer Smertin has been one of the sport’s most vocal proponents of change.
The former Spartak and Chelsea midfielder visits schools and has organised a Moscow State University course for combating discrimination in football.
Smertin now wants to introduce similar studies nationwide.
“These lessons won’t just be about football but about dialogue between different people,” he wrote in the Moscow Times.
“And football, in my opinion, is a great platform for dialogue.”