RUSSIA 2018, A LITMUS TEST FOR A ‘FRAGILE NATION’.

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So many shots in the dark must have been fired on Vladimir Putin these past months that he must wake up every morning with bullet-ridden bedroom walls.

“We will do everything to make it a major sporting festival,” Putin said post-World Cup draw in December 2017, looking forward to a World Cup of “friendship and fair play, values that do not change with time.”

The volatile nature of the present Russia makes the upcoming World Cup a litmus test; for a nation that has faced major social and economic challenges; for a nation whose treatment of the black race has never been highly appreciated; it would be suicidal for Russia if an assembly of people from over 32 different countries fail to patch up the cracks on the wall.

“There’s no racism in Russia, because it doesn’t exist.”
This statement was made by Alexei Smertin in 2015.

And in February 2017, Smertin was selected to head an investigation into racism in Russian football.

Despite Smertin’s highly-criticised 2015 claim, Russian football has long been marred by persistent allegations of racism from fans, and Cameroonian player André Bikey doesn’t agree with Smertin’s assertions.

Bikéy who had to take a gun to Russia for his personal safety while still at Moscow said in 2015: “He says there is no racism in Russia. Racism is everywhere,” said the former Lokomotiv Moscow defender.

“It happened to me, it happened to my team-mates – we have to fight against it, especially with the World Cup going there.”

“It’s not something I really like to talk about, and the last time a journalist called me to talk about it, I didn’t,” he told BBC Sport.
“Speaking about it is not good for me, and not good for Russia.

“At my club and with my team-mates, everything was OK but when you went to play another team, in a city where they’ve never seen a black player, it was a little bit difficult.”

Brazil international Hulk, who plays for Zenit St Petersburg, has said racism happens at “almost every game” in the Russian league and that it presents a genuine threat to the 2018 World Cup.

It’s true that Smertin’s unalloyed patriotism for his darling nation Russia may have prompted his ‘No Racism in Russia’ comment; especially considering his ambassadorial standing, it will however, be worthy to note that the country has witnessed some high-profile racism scandal in football.

In March 2008, black players of French side Marseille, including André Ayew, Ronald Zubar and Charles Kaboré, were targeted by fans of Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Perhaps Smertin was already asleep when it happened!

When Zenith attempted to sign Mathieu Valbuena, a Frenchman, many fans asked “Is he a negro?”

Probably Smertin didn’t see it!

Additionally, Serge Branco, who played for Krylia Sovetov Samara, accused Zenit’s staff of racism: “Each time I play in St Petersburg I have to listen to racist insults from the stands. Zenit bosses do not do anything about it which makes me think they are racists too.”

It seems Smertin wasn’t disposed to read this.

On 20 August 2010, Peter Odemwingie, a Russian-born Nigerian international, joined English Premier League team West Bromwich Albion.

Shortly after signing, photographs showed Lokomotiv Moscow fans celebrating the sale of Odemwingie through the use of racist banners targeted at the player.

One banner included the image of a banana and read “Thanks West Brom”.

Obviously, selling the Nigerian who was even born in Russia became only an act of mercy considering the fact that his ever-presence on the Russian pitch was seen by his own fans as a ‘mortal sin’.

I guess Smertin was on sabbatical when it happened.

What of Brazil and Real Madrid legend – Roberto Carlos?

The man who joined Anzhi Makhachkala on 12 February 2011 was given a ‘banana-welcome’, during a game away at Zenit Saint Petersburg one month after coming to Russia. A banana was held near Carlos by one of the fans as the footballer was taking part in a flag-raising ceremony.

In June, in a match away at Krylia Sovetov Samara, Roberto Carlos received a pass from the goalkeeper and was about to pass it when a banana was thrown onto the pitch, landing nearby. The then 38-year-old Brazilian picked it up and threw it by the sidelines, walking off the field before the final whistle and raising two fingers at the stands, indicating this was the second of such incident since March.

A well-prepared Pastel de queijo would have been okay for the legendary full-back after the game than the Baboon-favourite thrown at him on the pitch.

But Smertin still insist there’s no racism in Russia.

In 2013, Yaya Touré received racist abuse from opposition fans whilst playing against CSKA Moscow in Russia.

The Manchester City superstar who understand how it feels to be at the center of such sham is ready to put up a ‘fight’ to ensure racism doesn’t mar the 2018 World Cup.

Toure is not expected to take part in the tournament as Ivory Coast failed to make it to the finals, but he says he is willing to help tackle the issue.

“I have been abused by racism and because those things happened to me, I try to be involved and I want to help those people who don’t have a voice to control this situation,” he told BBC.

“For me to defend an African boy in this situation is a blessing.
“What we are looking to do is to try and stop those idiotic people doing that. We have to be focused and have fair play everywhere.”

We are barely three months away from the Grand feast which kicks off at Luzhniki Stadium on June 13/14, and preparations has hit top gear.

Of the 32 countries that would feature at the tournament, there’ll be five from Africa and five from Asia. Other countries from South America and the CONCAF region are mixed race. The likes of France, England and Belgium lead countries from Europe whose plane to Russia will be filled with players of different races.

It implies that for the duration of the World Cup, the streets and roads of Russia would not lack the presence of people with different skin colours.

This would be the time for the people of Russia to unfurl their hospitality tricks for the whole world to see.

Hopefully, the Russian ‘hooligans and Commandos’ who staged a ‘blockbuster’ with English fans in Marseille about two years ago will maintain decorum on home soil.

Hopefully, Kiev’s intention to implement a stricter regime in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and role in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine takes a softer stance following the World Cup.

Hopefully, the World Cup finally bridges the gap in relationship between President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and his Russian counterpart – Putin; not just the leaders, but everybody.

Hopefully, Russia 2018 puts a stop to the ‘Cold racism war’.

The World Cup eve would mark exactly the 31st anniversary of this speech by former United States President, Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall in the wake of the Cold War;

He said:

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union, Central and South-East Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate; Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

This is the time for the Russian people to strut their stuff on a grand stage and show that they truly seek peace, liberalization, prosperity; and are ready to ‘tear down the wall’ of racism in world football; because there may not be time for a metanoia, unless they plan to end up turning the ‘party’ into a ‘wake’.

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