How will Russia's many problems affect the 2018 World Cup?

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?

Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime hosting the World Cup presents a mess of problems. (Getty)
Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime hosting the World Cup presents a mess of problems. (Getty)

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 process in 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.

Racism elsewhere around Russia

The main concern, however, might be the thousands of fans who will travel to Russia as ethnic minorities. FARE has warned of racial profiling by Russian police, and has launched an emergency WhatsApp helpline for fans to report incidents of all kinds.

“There will be incidents inside stadiums, around stadiums,” FARE executive director Piara Powar recently said. “The question will be how frequently they occur, how serious they are.”

Such is the societal problem that black players, like England defender Danny Rose, have advised family members not to travel to Russia.

“I’m not worried for myself,” Rose told the London Evening Standard. “But I’ve told my family I don’t want them going out there because of racism and anything else that may ­happen. I don’t want to be worrying, when I’m trying to prepare for games, for my family’s safety.

“My dad’s really upset. I could hear it in his voice. He said he may never get a chance again to come and watch me in a World Cup. That was emotional, hearing that. It’s really sad. It’s just how it is. Somehow Russia got the World Cup and we have to get on with it.”

Homophobia

Another major problem is homophobia. It’s not ever-present in Russia, but it’s virulent and state-led. A 2013 bill signed by president Vladimir Putin criminalized “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to children. As a U.S. State Department travel advisory warns, “Foreign citizens face fines, up to 15 days in jail, and deportation for violating this law.”

Very few people have actually been punished for it, and Russia’s soccer federation has promised that gay fans will not be prosecuted for carrying rainbow flags or holding hands. But the broader problem is the message the law sends. Homosexuality itself isn’t illegal, but is clearly unwelcome. The law has spurred a surge in hate crimes against LGBTQ people, with the number of incidents doubling in five years. According to a recent poll, 39 percent of Russians think there will be an attack on an LGBTQ visitor during the World Cup. A paramilitary group says it’ll be patrolling the areas surrounding stadiums to prevent gay men from kissing.

All of that is why FARE has advised gay fans to refrain from public displays of affection.

There is a chance the World Cup passes without homophobic incident. But the fact that there are serious concerns is problematic in and of itself.

Hooliganism

You probably remember the scenes. Or at least you’ve read about them. About the hundreds of Russian fans charging across one end of a French stadium immediately after a Euro 2016 game against England. Security couldn’t control them. Some English fans had to hop a barrier to escape the unprovoked violence:

It bled into the streets as well:

Since then, we have learned more about those groups of young Russian men who wreaked havoc at the Euros. They don’t fit your stereotypical British hooligan profile. They are only tangentially related to soccer or affiliated with teams. “Most can’t even name five players from the club they’ve been fighting for,” the former head of a fan group told the Associated Press.

Instead, they are fit, sober, trained fighters. And they gather in forest clearings or uninhabited side streets to stage unpoliced, bare-knuckle group brawls:

Perhaps the biggest concern at the time was that Russia’s soccer federation and government seemed to applaud and celebrate the violence. One politician infamously tweeted: “Don’t see anything wrong with the fighting fans. On the contrary, well done lads. Keep it up!” Putin jokingly painted the ugly scenes as examples of Russia superiority: “I truly don’t understand how 200 of our fans could beat up several thousand English,” he said.

Putin and others quickly realized, however, that for the sake of Russia’s international image, the hooliganism had to stop. It had to be kept out of the spotlight at the World Cup two summers later. “The way this event goes and our country’s image will directly depend on your smooth, skillful work,” Putin told his police force earlier this year.

So the crackdown began. With increasing frequency, there have been surveillance schemes and arrests and threats of more. Authorities have met with leaders of hooligan groups to bring the violence under control, at least temporarily. Over 450 hooligans have been blacklisted.

So will they make their presence felt? Hooliganism is notoriously unpredictable, especially with so-called “ultras” from other countries descending upon Russia. But there almost certainly will not be fighting reminiscent of Euro 2016.

“My prognosis is that if there are brawls, they will be local and quickly defused,” the former fan group leader told the AP. “They won’t be on the same scale as Marseille. … The police have been training very hard for this for two years.”

Other concerns

Whether the best example is a questionable Putin comment or Russia’s decriminalization of domestic violence, many Russians hold hostile or misogynistic attitudes toward women. They probably won’t translate into any high-profile incidents at the World Cup, but the atmosphere is less than welcoming.

And aside from the hooliganism, there is a more general threat of violence or even terrorism. The U.S. State Department advises Americans to “reconsider travel to Russia due to terrorism and harassment.”

And finally … marijuana, heroine and cocaine will apparently be allowed in stadiums, as long as fans have relevant paperwork OKing medicinal use. That’s not necessarily problematic. But it’s entirely unknown whether there will be exploitable loopholes.

The overarching problem

The biggest flaw in FIFA’s Russian escapade won’t affect the experiences of fans or players over the next month. But it will be the cloud hanging over every stadium. Putin will use the tournament to present a rosy image of Russia to the world. He’ll use it just as Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympics, according to British foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

The pageantry will drape a cloak over the brutality of his regime; over its meddling in foreign elections; over its cyberwarfare; over its actual warfare in Ukraine; over its support of abhorrent Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; and over so much more.

The World Cup legitimizes Putin and Russia. It implicitly condones everything he and his state do. As Yahoo Sports’ Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote:

There isn’t a whole lot out there that will make a government of dubious character or legitimacy look better than putting on a successful sporting mega-event. FIFA portends to forbid the injection to politics into its affairs, but it will once again willingly submit to the hijacking of its signature tournament by a bad actor for propagandist purposes.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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