There are countless reasons to feel uneasy about the fact that in less than 72 hours, a World Cup will kick off in Russia. There is the inevitable racism. The expected, state-encouraged homophobia. The oft-discussed hooliganism that threatens to mar the greatest sport’s greatest spectacle.
There are broader reasons, too, why Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup is problematic. But it only seems right to begin an article on the topic with the nagging question: How did we get here?
How did Russia, a nation so utterly undeserving of global sport’s biggest showpiece, manage to land it?
The answer still evades us. But any rational observer or skeptic is convinced that answer includes some sort of shenanigans. Something untoward. Something illicit.
A retrospective FIFA investigation into the matter, released publicly last year only after it was obtained by an investigative journalist, found no evidence of Russian wrongdoing. But it found, among other things, that computers belonging to the Russian bid team had been destroyed. It did very little to dispel suspicion surrounding a 2010 vote that has been shrouded in controversy. On the same day Qatar won the right to host the 2022 tournament ahead of the U.S., Australia, Japan and South Korea, Russia beat out England and two others. In the eight years since, there have been too many bribery allegations to keep up with. There has been a massive FIFA corruption scandal that can be traced back to 2010, to Russian suspicion, and to the man behind the now-famous Trump Dossier.
All of which is to reiterate the point: Russia probably didn’t deserve the World Cup then, just as it doesn’t now. FIFA’s inspection team rated its bid the riskiest of the four for 2018. And yet here we are.
On the eve of kickoff, none of that murkiness matters. But it has left FIFA with new problems. With uniquely Russian problems. Which ones will affect the World Cup, and how?
Racism at games
The most prevalent concern is racism. A recent study co-conducted by FARE – Football Against Racism in Europe – and a Russian organization found that discriminatory chants and monkey noises were on the rise in stadiums around the World Cup host nation. “Xenophobic views remain deeply rooted among many Russian football fans,” the report stated, later noting that the increase also highlights “a lack of educational and preventative efforts.” FIFA’s policing of racism, which includes meager fines and other insufficient punishments, is also a culprit.
So there is every chance these chants will rear their ugly heads at the World Cup. In March, Russian fans directed monkey noises at black French players during a friendly in St. Petersburg. The Russian soccer federation was fined roughly $29,000 as a result. At club level, Zenit St. Petersburg will be forced to play a match behind closed doors due to separate incidents. And Spartak Moscow fans are seemingly under incessant investigation for similar chants, including racial abuse hurled at a Brazilian-born Russian goalkeeper.
It seems probable, even, that racism will taint games, and there is little players can do to combat it. England’s have discussed walking off fields if they are abused. But players can be shown yellow cards, or teams expelled from the tournament, if they do so, making such extreme measures unlikely.
There will, FIFA says, be anti-discrimination monitoring in the stands. And refs have the power to suspend or abandon games. They have been told to follow a three-step processin the case of discriminatory chants. The first two instances call for halts to the match and an announcement over the stadium’s public address system. The third step is to call the match off. But it seems very unlikely that a World Cup ref would go that far. And it’s unclear what affect the monitoring will have, if any.