What exactly happened in the crowds at two football games in Russia this week – CSKA Moscow versus Manchester City in the Champions’ League, and Anzhi Makhachkala versus Tromso in the Europa League – is still not exactly clear. Yaya Toure is certain he was racially abused by a section of the CSKA crowd, and at the Anzhi match monkey chants were heard by some watching. Others at the games heard nothing – the best that can be said about this is that the abuse wasn’t loud or widespread enough to affect the entire crowd.
Abuse at the Anzhi – Tromso match is likely to have come from the home crowd, but directed at the home players: Anzhi play their European games just outside Moscow because of security problems in Dagestan. There is long-standing antipathy between ethnic Russians and Caucasians (the heritage of most Dagestanis); these ‘home’ Anzhi games are used by some to promote a pro-Russian agenda.
The reaction in Russia to what Yaya Toure claims he heard has been mixed. CSKA’s official denials sound typical to anyone who has followed the Russian game over the last fifteen years, and warrant little time here. Fans’ reactions include disgust, which on some occasions comes with a health warning. It is tempered with the suggestion that Yaya Toure shouldn’t have been abused because he is intelligent and a great player: the inference being that it wouldn’t have mattered had he been less intelligent and less good at his job. Others have claimed the abuse is not racism, as the people doing it don’t hate non-whites and wouldn’t dream of hurting a black person if they met one in the street: this is probably true, but doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
A sizeable number claim the incident is an attempt by an England – still slighted at not getting the 2018 World Cup – to smear Russia: a PR stunt that started with City coach Manuel Pellegrini complaining about the Moscow pitch. The first thing to note is that neither Pellegrini nor Toure are English; second that the pitch at Khimki has been in a shocking state for weeks, a fact accepted by almost everyone; third that English clubs have rightly complained about racial abuse wherever they have played.
The danger is that the argument over what did or didn’t happen at the games will cloud the bigger issue – that for years the type of racial abuse alleged has been a problem inside Russian stadiums. Some may try to rationalise it in ways that are in turns ignorant and paranoid, but the Russian authorities must accept that it cannot be brushed under the carpet. Racism is unacceptable to the majority watching Russian football matches.
The monkey noises in stadiums have always been made by a minority, but there is a growing number of Russians who, rather than not caring, feel uncomfortable when they hear this. If racism is to be eradicated, it is with this silent majority that it will start. In England football-related racism is nowhere near the problem it was twenty or thirty years ago: changes in culture both inside and outside grounds have meant racists feeling less and less comfortable expressing their views to the extent that they have almost disappeared.
It might seem like nothing, but as a Russian football observer it felt like a minor revelation last year when Zenit St. Petersburg fan group Landscrona declared ‘we are not racists’. This followed a statement in which they had demanded their club refrain from buying black players: it received a negative reaction both inside and outside Russia. Landscrona appear to have been made uncomfortable by the suggestion they were racists, and felt the need to row back.
News stories about Russia and Russians that reach the west are usually either negative or eccentric, and do not reflect the country I know. There is a majority of Russians educated and switched on to the modern world – and ready to condemn discrimination. Racism will surely disappear from Russian stadiums; and when it does, it won’t be thanks to the media or football’s governing bodies – it will be thanks to ordinary local fans making it clear they don’t accept it.
Saul Pope is a blogger on Russian and Ukrainian football, and contributor to ‘When Saturday Comes’ magazine. He can be followed on Twitter: @saulpope