The World Cup opens in Moscow a month from today, an 11-city, four-week chanting, flag-waving showcase for the world's most popular sport and, this time around, for Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Conventional wisdom has it that with Putin in charge (he was inaugurated again last week for his fourth term), the quadrennial world soccer championships will run like clockwork. Back in 2013, Jerome Valcke, then secretary-general of FIFA, soccer's international governing body, said as much: "I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup…. When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018 … that is easier for organizers."
Putin's Russia may have seemed like an ideal venue to Valcke but it's not so ideal to many other observers. Russia harbors a virulent soccer hooligan subculture that reflects a toxic mix of "isms." Racism is rampant, along with anti-Semitism. Homophobia is written into federal law: a 2013 statute banning "homosexual propaganda" aimed at minors. Putin's political opponents are routinely beaten and arrested.
Instead of what FIFA says it championships promote — the integrity of 'football' —there's every chance the Russia World Cup will display its host country's ugly side: bigotry, xenophobia and ultranationalism.
Of course, FIFA says nothing of the kind will happen. Russia's soccer governing body, the Russian Football Union, has even hired an anti-racism "inspector," Alexei Smertin. Smertin, for example, has assured the world that rainbow flags could be unfurled in stadiums without penalty.
But he also seems to think there is little reason for his job to exist: "There's no racism in Russia," he told the BBC, "because it doesn't exist. Racism in Russia is like fashion.… It comes from abroad, from different countries. It was never, ever here before. Ten years ago, some fans may have given a banana to black guys — it was just for fun."
Except the "fun" has never stopped. Last month, two of Russia's soccer teams, including its national champion club Spartak Moscow, were penalized because their fans were bellowing monkey chants at black players and chanting Nazi slogans. In March, at an international friendly match between Russia and France in St. Petersburg, fans also directed monkey noises at French players Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembele.
Spartak Moscow was forced to play its next game to partly empty stands, and FIFA levied a relatively meager fine of $30,000 against the Russian Football Union in April. For his part, Smertin sounded miffed. Bad relations between the West and Moscow were causing undue attention to a problem all nations have, he said. "We cannot fail to take the political situation into account."
The London-based anti-discrimination group Fare Network (formerly Football Against Racism in Europe) documents hooliganism. Piara Powar, Fare's executive director, cites the far-right's "long history of violent activism" in Russian football fan groups, and Fare documented 89 incidents at Russian games in the 2016-17 season, mostly in the form of coded bigotry: clothing and banners adorned with the neo-Nazi numerical symbol 88, the Celtic cross, runes, or the SS slogan "My honor is loyalty."
The incident involving France was no anomaly. In 2017, European football administrators punished the Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg because its fans flew a banner celebrating Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb convicted of war crimes. Ahead of a Confederations Cup match between Cameroon and Germany held in Sochi, Russia, the same year, locals painted their faces black and marched through the streets.
For World Cup fans, the Fare Network is issuing a guide that suggests that black and ethnic minorities exercise caution while they are in Russia. If gay fans walk down the street holding hands, Powar says, they may face danger depending on the city they are in and the time of day. "Gay people have a place in Russia which is quite hidden and underground," Powar pointed out.
Earlier this month, the Guardian reported that pro-Kremlin Cossack militia members would be policing World Cup venues "to ensure public safety." Also this month, Cossack troops attacked activists at an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow before his inauguration. In 2014, they were photographed whipping members of the political art collective Pussy Riot at a protest during the Sochi Olympics.
It wasn't until 2017 that FIFA adopted a human-rights policy. Its principles won't apply to World Cup bidding until 2026, conveniently sidestepping the Russia event and the next World Cup, in human-rights-challenged Qatar.
Last fall, Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch characterized FIFA's new policies and newly published reports on human rights as long overdue. "FIFA's publications are piling up," she wrote, "but the human-rights progress is not."
Fare points out that racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and nationalism are on the rise everywhere, and we shouldn't be surprised to see that in football fans. This is perhaps especially true in Russia. All the more reason to hold FIFA accountable for any violence or bigotry that does occur. It shouldn't have awarded Moscow the World Cup in the first place.
Jules Boykoff, a former professional and national team soccer player, is a professor of politics and government at Pacific University in Oregon.