With just a couple of months left until the voting starts for the hosting of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals, it is perhaps unsurprising that a story should enter the public domain regarding racism that involves, to some extent, clubs from the two countries that are the current favourites to win the nomination to host the 2018 tournament. The controversy has involved the transfer of midfielder Peter Odemwingie from Lokomotiv Moscow to West Bromwich Albion. It has been reported that, when Odemwingie left Lokomotiv, he was greeted at his last match with a banner with a picture of a banana on it and message saying, “Thanks West Brom”. The argument turned faintly odd when the head of the Russian bid, Alexei Sorokin, stated that everybody had missed a subtle joke, stating that:
I know that this banner applied to a certain player and to the manner of how he played in his last matches. Apparently fans were not happy with the fact that he plays better for Nigeria and worse for the club. That’s why they have shown their satisfaction after he left. And there is nothing racial in it. If there would be another player – from Russia, Denmark, Norway or Japan, for example – the reaction could be the same. In Russia ‘to get a banana’ means ‘to fail a test somewhere’.
There are, without doubt, many arguments that could be had over the semantic differences when translating between English and Russian and it is at the very least possible that the British press, who have waded into this story, could stand accused of having an agenda that is more to do with the 2018 World Cup finals – a degree of support that the bid, in all honesty, could have done with from the start but didn’t receive until a few scores had been settled – than genuine outrage at racism in Russian football. Likewise, it is understandable that Alexei Sorokin would seek to play down the allegations made, although his choice of argument was probably not the wisest that he could have gone with.
It is also worth pointing out that, although massive inroads have been made into the problem of racism in British football, we don’t quite live in an environment in which the problem has completely been eradicated, although it’s worth pointing out that the response of West Bromwich Albion’s supporters to this banner, a huge flag with a “Kick Racism Out Of Football” banner, a picture of Odemwingie celebrating his debut goal for his new club and the message, “Thanks Lokomotiv”, is a particularly classy one. Plenty of Russian supporters have made statements that have been supportive of this response, and this has been of more credit to the Russian World Cup bid than Sorokin’s comments on the subject were. The problem with tit-for-tat arguments such as these, however, is that, if people look hard enough, they could find examples of racism anywhere, including amongst a minority of English football supporters. The same could certainly be said in Spain, Italy or France. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone is an appropriate rhetorical statement to throw into any debate of this nature.
The tipping point on this argument comes from two sources, and the first of these is Odemwingie himself, who stated that players from ethnic minorities in Russia, “feel the open racism there”, and that he recalled, “a game against CSKA Moscow when their fans started the sick noises – I wouldn’t have any of it and gave it back to them”. It’s worth bearing in mind that Odemwingie wasn’t an emigré to Russia who may not have understood the complexities of Russian slang – he was born in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, although he has played his international football for Nigeria. The second comes from FARE, the anti-racism group that has worked with both UEFA and FIFA in anti-racism campaigns. Their executive director, Piara Power, stated that, “The context in which the banner was used was clearly racist in context, and to suggest otherwise is a nonsense”.
Whilst attitudes towards racism in Russia still seem to be some way behind those in Britain, it goes without saying that the sorts of displays seen towards Peter Obamwingie by this particular group of Lokomotiv Moscow supporters remain those of a minority. It also seems unlikely that a campaign by the British press on a points scoring exercise would have much influence over the ultimate decision that FIFA delegates make in December. If were to be the case that they could be so influenced, then the British press would stand accused of having done its utmost to ruin England’s bid before it even got started. It has been suggested that the Nigerian FA have already stated that they will not be voting for Russia when the chips are down, but this doesn’t guarantee a vote for England, and it is to be hoped that all votes are cast after careful consideration of the total merits of all of the competitors.