On 25 September 2016 some bizarre news came out of FIFA. Apparently, the much maligned (and for good reason) governing body of world football decided to disband its anti-racism task force focused on racist elements in Russia ahead of the 2018 World Cup. ESPN FC reported that, “FIFA wrote to members of the task force to say that it has ‘completely fulfilled its temporary mission’ and ‘is hereby dissolved and no longer in operation’. (emphasis added). The fact that FIFA could say that its mission was “completely” fulfilled is absurd, and The Guardian’s Archie Bland gives us a good number of reasons why. Mr. Bland rightly notes that racist displays by Russian fans are actually increasing, with 92 racist incidents in the 2014-2015 season compared to 83 over the previous two seasons! In fact, as recently as 28 September 2016 a banana was thrown on a Russian pitch, with the incident coming during a Champions League match between FC Rostov and PSV Eindhoven.
FIFA Talk a Good Game, But Fall Short Where It Matters. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.espnfc.us/blog/fifa/243/post/2959297/fifa-disbands-anti-racism-task-force-ahead-of-2018-russia-world-cup
It is not a secret that racism is an issue in Russian football, and the website Futbolgrad gives an amazing profile of its history. Interestingly, it is not just racial differences that provoke fans, but it is also different interpretations of what it means to be “Russian”. One Spartak fan reflecting on a 1999 away match in the Caucasus is quoted as saying:
People were fine until we started chanting “Only Russia!” and “Russians, forward!”. Fuck, then all hell broke loose! Everyone got up, started pointing fingers at us, threatening to knife every single one of us! They were like, we’re from Vladikavkaz, we’re also Russian and we live in Russia. Well, what can we do, if these people don’t understand the difference between russkiye [ethnic Russians] and rossiyane [Russian citizens]?
Here it is a tension between ethnic and civic definitions of nationalism that is playing itself out on the terraces of Russian stadia. Such tensions are also visible in Turkish stadiums (between Kurds and Turks) and this is why it is important to realize that racism in sport is not just a Russian problem, nor is it just a football problem.
Roberto Carlos Was Taunted By a Banana In Russia. Images Courtesy of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2007642/Shame-Russian-football-racist-fans-throw-bananas-Brazilian-superstar-Roberto-Carlos.html
In responding to FIFA’s incomprehensible decision, former Welsh footballer Nathan Blake says something that I have argued in the past—racism is a global problem stemming from global issues. In order to fight it, then, we must recognize its global nature while also realizing that, as Mr. Blake says, “It’s down to people and individuals and a way of thought”; the individual is part of a collective and without realizing this we can get nowhere.
Unfortunately, FIFA’s “taskforce” is a classic example of how, too often, people do lip service to solving racial problems without confronting the fact that it is engrained in some individuals and their wider societies. FIFA’s pathetic attempt to solve racism in football—without ever having a single meeting about it, of course—is just an attempt to throw the issue a bone. Its almost like they said “Hey, this is an important issue that really affects both footballers and fans negatively, so let’s publicize how we are addressing it. Then, when we say we have ‘solved’ it, everyone will be happy and we will look like we did something positive and get good publicity. It’s a win win!”. Unfortunately, FIFA apparently never heard the adage “if something’s too good to be true…it usually isn’t”.
For me, FIFA’s (rather large) pat on their collective back is no different than the individual who says things like “I listen to hip-hop music, I’m not racist” or “I go to Mexican restaurants all the time, I’m not racist” and then pats themselves on the back and continues on with their day. In this case it was “Look, I ran an anti-racism taskforce, so I’m solving racism”. Such self-congratulatory behavior actually has the reverse effect of what it originally desired; instead of lessening racism it in actuality perpetuates it because too often such behavior results in a reverse kind of racism by putting such an emphasis on racial differences. As I have argued before, this does nothing but perpetuate divides within society. The right thing to do is treat people well regardless of their race, gender, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation (and any other difference I may have forgotten, lest I offend) and no one should expect to be congratulated for doing the right thing. Unfortunately people are often too busy putting on the façade of “openness” and “progressiveness” to realize what is happening.
If FIFA did not have the intention to seriously and constructively confront racism in football, and instead wanted to “look good”, then they should not have wasted their time. As football fans, it is our individual responsibility to not engage in racist behavior in stadiums and condemn it when it happens. If we can do that, we will be much more successful than FIFA ever could have been in getting racism out of football.