Will We Remember the World Cup for All the Wrong Reasons?

Football soccer ball with world teams flags

On June 14, just 15 days away, Russia will kick off the 2018 World Cup against Saudi Arabia. Will it be a glorious, unmissable festival of football? Or will we remember the tournament for hooliganism and racism?

Yes, just 15 days. On Thursday, June 14, the World Cup will get under way at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Russia’s game against Saudi Arabia kicks off at 4pm UK time and billions of people around the world will tune in.

Four days later, and more than 600 miles down Russia’s E119, England starts its campaign against Tunisia. The tournament ends on Sunday, July 15, with the final back in Moscow. What sort of tournament will we have seen and, most important to this writer, will England still be involved? Or will Harry Kane and friends be on the beach, enjoying a holiday but trying to forget another inglorious exit?

Rather more worrying, will we be looking back on a tournament that was blighted by hooliganism and racism? Worries like this are almost traditional before a World Cup, but this time it really could be different. The early signs are not good.

Racial tension

Sadly, you have to say that a tournament tainted by racism is a real possibility. Russian fans do not have the best reputation for racism, something FIFA was well aware of before it handed the tournament to Russia.

In March, Russia played France in a friendly in St. Petersburg, a stadium that will host seven World Cup games, including Russia’s game against Egypt and a semi-final. During the game, racially offensive chants were aimed at several French players, including Manchester United’s Paul Pogba. FIFA came down hard on the Russians, fining them £10m ($13.3m) and stripping them of the right to host the World Cup.

Actually, as any football fan knows, FIFA administered the lightest possible slap on the wrist, fining the Russian Football Federation 30,000 Swiss francs (£22,000; $29,214) – a fine which, it said, reflected, “the gravity of the incident, but also the limited number of fans involved”.

So that is all right then. But racism in Russian football is so prevalent that it has its own Wiki entry, with more than 100 incidents reported between 2012 and 2014 and countless high-profile players being the subject of abuse from right-wing groups. The Russian Football Federation recently fined both Zenit St Petersburg and Spartak Moscow for racist chants from supporters.

The problem of racism seems deeply embedded in both Russian society and Russian football. There seems to be no reason at all why it should stop during the World Cup. Players in Italy have already set a precedent by walking off the pitch in protest at racist chanting. Do not bet against racial abuse leading to the abandonment of a game in this year’s World Cup.

The hooligan problem

The last major football tournament in Europe was Euro2016, the European championships held in France. Newspapers were rife with stories of Russian hooliganism, including reports of 150 “trained Russian hooligans” who flew to Marseilles especially to fight English fans before and after the teams met in the tournament. English fans described the Russians as “savage and organized”.

We may need to sound a note of caution. “English warned, be prepared to die” is a headline that will sell far more newspapers than “Russian security forces crack down on potential hooligans”.

“This year,” warned one Russian fan, “We will do more than just sing. Fighting is in our blood.” Russian “ultras” have been organizing themselves on Vkontakte.com (Russia’s alternative to Facebook) and they are apparently planning to lure English fans to Reutov, a small town near Moscow for “stienka na stienke” – literally translated as “wall to wall” fighting.

On the other hand, another Russian fan described the violence in France as “nothing personal” and promised that the 2018 World Cup would be “the safest ever.” Apparently, it will be if the Russian security forces have their way, with some group of ultras already reporting extra security initiatives and “harassment from the police” ahead of the World Cup.

In truth, everything depends on the attitude of the Russian police and the FSB, the state security organization. Logically, you would assume that the Russian authorities would not want the World Cup to be remembered for either violence or racism. But, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, logic may have nothing to do with it.

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