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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Language not the only barrier with menace of racism always just below the surface in Russia

Part 2 of Gary Meenaghan's Confederations Cup report looks at Russia's readiness to host the 2018 World Cup from the fans' perspective

Fans are checked at a security station.
Fans are checked at a security station.

SAINT PETERSBURG // The Russian man singing and waving a large Cameroon flag outside Saint Petersburg Stadium before the African champions’ match against Australia should have been an exemplar image of a welcoming Confederations Cup. Here was the epitome of a country ready to be hospitable to the football world next year: a Russian vocally and visually supporting Cameroon. At least that’s how it could have been had he not painted his face black.

When a similar incident had occurred a few weeks earlier in Sochi — a Russian man with his face and arms painted black took part in an official parade alongside a woman wearing an afro wig and a necklace of plastic bananas — the local government played it down. “It was organised with the friendliest of goals in mind: to create a positive atmosphere”, it said in a statement, adding that “by no means did the carnival parade intend to insult anyone”.

Ignorance is no excuse, nor does it negate a report by anti-discrimination group Fare and Russia-based Sova that found 89 racist and far-right incidents in the country’s domestic league last season. Organisers have been advised in private to educate local supporters on racism, symbolism and respecting different cultures ahead of their World Cup next summer. Fifa’s new three-step in-stadium anti-discrimination procedure will also be used at the global showpiece and gives referees the power to abandon a match.

READ MORE: Confederations Cup proved a useful reconnaissance run, not least for VAR and hosts Russia

Several fans spoken to by The National and from a variety of countries including Chile, Iraq, Brazil and Algeria, said they had experienced no discriminatory issues during their time in Russia. “We had pretty low expectations about the country, but we have found it more open than expected,” said Cristian Crespo, a Chilean who had visited Moscow and Kazan with his parents and partner and was enjoying the atmosphere inside St Petersburg’s Fifa Fan Fest. “We live in London and I don’t think it is much different to there.”

Despite international fears in the build-up, hooliganism proved a non-issue during the Confederations Cup, helped undoubtedly by Russian authorities’ determination to at least appear to be cracking down on such behaviour following last summer’s ugly scenes in France. At the European Championship, Russia and England fans clashed violently in Marseille, prompting calls for fans to avoid the World Cup for safety reasons.

Last month more than 200 people were officially banned by Russian authorities and prohibited from entering World Cup stadiums. Meanwhile a nationwide scheme was introduced whereby all Confed Cup ticket-holders had to constantly wear a Fifa-printed ID on a lanyard around their neck. The result was that in and around the venues was a safe, sociable atmosphere that looked a little like some sort of football convention.

Chile fans at the Saint Petersburg Stadium.
Chile fans at the Saint Petersburg Stadium.

“Everybody heard about the Russians in Marseille last year,” said Leonid Suvorov, a local fan wearing a New Zealand shirt and attending the Kiwis match against Portugal. “Normally in Russia we have some problems with supporters and gangs, but here it’s cool because the Fan ID brings normal fans to the stadium: women, children, everybody. The atmosphere here is nothing like during the Russian championship games because if you go to Zenit or Spartak it is very different.”

As well as waiving visa requirements during the tournament — although, important to note, not the need to register with a local migration office within 24 hours of arriving in each new city — the country also afforded ticket-holding spectators free overland travel between host cities. Instead of requiring expensive flights, fans were able to move around the country easily and economically by train, bus and tram.

Vitaly Mutko, the deputy prime minister and head of the Russian Football Union, confirmed the arrangement will continue for next year, meaning fans will be able to comfortably visit several of the 12 host cities without breaking their budgets — although with a 52-hour train journey required to reach Yekaterinburg from Sochi, some routes might break the will of even the most hardened traveller.

Such fan-focused initiatives should be commended, yet in other ways the country still appears a little unready for what awaits in less than 12 months. This is a country where the militaristic police are known to demand you hand over your camera and delete its contents should you take images of the wrong motorcade or delegation; a country where police bribes remain worryingly commonplace and locals joke about the government always finding a way to take your money.

Policing a Confederations Cup that brought in only a relative spattering of international fans — Germany reportedly brought 2,500; Cameroon a further 250 — is a different challenge entirely to a World Cup. Moscow’s unsmiling officers must prepare for a million new tourists, asking questions and losing possessions. Similarly, while the unguarded canals that line Saint Petersburg remained quaint and quiet this past month, they are almost certain to produce a rowdy swimmer or 300 next year.

And while English-language signs may be growing in number, spectators are in agreement regarding the most important improvement required. “Everything has been very easy: getting to stadiums and games, but they need more English speakers,” said Pablo Souza, visiting Russia from Salvador in Brazil. “It’s very difficult to communicate here, which makes life harder than it needs to be.”

“The organisation is great,” Chilean Carolina Hidalgo added. “But with the language it is going to be tricky. Even some of the volunteers do not speak English.”

Approximately 5,000 volunteers were spread across Sochi, Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kazan this month, each clad in a blue or red tracksuit and often with a large foam finger pointing towards a stadium. Their relentless grins and friendly demands for high-fives were in stark contrast to the introverted stereotypical Russian-on-the-street. If the 15,000 volunteers expected to take part next summer can replicate such levels of enthusiasm, Russia’s reputation will be enhanced exponentially.

Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko, second from right.
Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko, second from right.

Yet the country’s determination to improve its international image has been indisputable since the eve of the tournament. Chilean journalist Diego Saez had been charged 40,000 roubles (Dh2,500) for a taxi from Moscow airport to his hotel in the city. He even good-heartedly added a further 10,000 as a tip before realising the exchange rate and the fact he had been charged more than 10 times the going rate. Within 24 hours, however, the police had apprehended the driver, returned Saez his money and offered to jail the driver, who himself subsequently offered to drive Saez around for free for the duration of his stay.

However, there are some things that cannot be rectified by merely arresting a thief. As well as being delivered 10 years late and 500 per cent over budget, the Saint Petersburg Stadium has resulted in at least 17 deaths and was at the centre of a Human Rights Watch report that said those employed faced “exploitation and labour abuses”. It has also been alleged North Korean labourers worked on the arena in conditions similar to “prisoners of war”.

Fifa’s general-secretary Fatma Samoura said that inspections were carried out by the governing body late last year and again at the start of 2017. “There was presence of North Korean workers, but when we returned there were no North Koreans,” she said. “All recommendations were fully implemented.”

Construction of Saint Petersburg Stadium has run massively over budget.
Construction of Saint Petersburg Stadium has run massively over budget.

Mutko, the deputy prime minister, confidently invited media to visit the seven stadiums that remain under construction. He has already spoken of his desire for all venues to be finished well in advance in order to avoid the kind of situation that threatened to mar the opening week of Brazil’s 2014 tournament when work was still being done on the eve of the tournament’s curtain raiser.

His goal looks certain to be achieved with each of the seven outstanding stadiums close to completion, albeit with some vastly over budget. After that the only thing left will be to welcome the world. Without blackface.