FIFA official warns of World Cup boycott over racism in Russia

The official logo of the 2018 World Cup in Russia is projected on the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on Oct. 28.
(Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP/Getty Images)

A FIFA official warned this week that the 2018 World Cup in Russia could be boycotted by black players unless Russian President Vladimir Putin gets tougher on racism.

Tokyo Sexwale, FIFA’s anti-racism advisor and a former anti-apartheid activist, told the Associated Press that there was growing concern among players over the increasing number of racist incidents in the Russian soccer league.

“There is a threat black players will say they are not going to Russia. We can’t have that,” said Sexwale, a South African who was a political prisoner on Robben Island under that country’s apartheid government. “I am talking as a citizen of the world -- it can’t go that far. Once these things start and you don’t act as leaders, these things snowball.”


UEFA, the governing body for European soccer, has punished Russian teams for racist acts in recent years. CSKA Moscow, for example, has been forced to play its Champions League home games in empty stadiums because of fan abuse toward black players. However Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko last month denied major racism existed in the country saying “I don’t know what there is to be frightened [about].”

The Russian Football Union has also taken little action against racism, earning international condemnation for failing to sanction FC Rostov Coach Igor Gamula for saying last week that he wouldn’t sign a player from Cameroon because the club has “enough dark-skinned players. We’ve got six of the things.”

Gamula apologized after five African players theatened to sit out a training session. But Sexwale said an apology alone wasn’t enough, referring to former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was banned for life by the NBA over racially inflammatory comments.

He could also have referenced the action taken by FIFA against Italian federation President Carlo Tavecchio, who has been penalized for an alleged racist comment he made in August.

Tavecchio referred to a ficitious African player he named Opti Poba “eating bananas,” according to Reuters. FIFA banned Tavecchio from holding any position in the organization for six months.

South African Football Assn. President Danny Jordan wrote to FIFA chief Sepp Blatter on Monday expressing concerns over the Russian situation, Sexwale said.

“For the Russian federation to be seen to be serious we need to take stern action,” Sexwale told the Associated Press. “The world took stern action against South Africa [over apartheid]; it was expelled from FIFA.”

For his part, Sexwale, who referred to Putin as a “personal friend” urged the Russian president to get involved as well.

“Show that leadership, be the Putin the world knows, be tough,” he challenged. “Failure to do so, we could be talking something different about the 2018 World Cup. You will have people saying they will not go to Russia.”

Claudio Sulser, head of FIFA’s disciplinary committee, offered assurances that the group was taking the situation in Russia seriously.

“It’s very critical,” Sulser said. “This is a problem of society.”