World Cup atmosphere has been festive in so far, but fears persist about how seriously officials take problem

The potential for racism during the course of its World Cup has been one of the most pained issues in the build-up to the tournament, with the track record of Russian crowds worrying many players. England's Danny Rose has told his family not to traveling to Russia to watch him play, citing dreads for their safety.

Russian football officials, on the other hand, believe home countries has been unfairly smeared as racist by western media and players. But no amount of obfuscation can hide the fact that the game in Russia has a longstanding problem with racist chants and taunts, as well as a history of officials rejecting racism allegations out of hand.

On Saturday, Nigeria take on Croatia in the Baltic city of Kaliningrad, the first match involving a team from sub-Saharan Africa. Fifa has introduced a new system for the World Cup, in which a team of commentators at every game will report any incidents to officials, who will have the power to stop games if necessary.

So far, the atmosphere has been festive, with fans from across the world mingling in central Moscow until the early hours in the working day before the tournament kicked off. On Friday, the first Nigerian fans arrived in Kaliningrad, and reported no issues so far.

Nigeria
Nigeria train in Kaliningrad before their match against Croatia on Saturday. Photograph: Vitaly Nevar/ TASS

” Of course the racism issue was at the back of my intellect ,” told 29 -year-old Anthony, who has tickets to all three Nigerian group games, and was watching Uruguay v Egypt in Kaliningrad's Fan Zone on Friday afternoon.” But I merely decided to keep an open intellect and so far everything has been great and people have been incredibly friendly .”

” We all are sure that there will not be any problem for the Nigerian players because the atmosphere we felt in arriving in Russia was very good ,” told Nigeria's German coach-and-four Gernot Rohr at his pre-match press conference on Friday evening.

Captain Mikel John Obi, who has a Russian girlfriend, said the team had been given a warm welcome at its developing base in Essentuki, southern Russia.” Everybody has been really nice. I think in the hotel, even in the camp where we are, it's been really, really amazing. The Russian people have been very nice to us, a lot of Russians seem to support the Nigerian squad .”

Russian officials have a history of not taking racism severely, say rights campaigners. Alexei Sorokin, the head of Russia's World Cup organising committee, said in 2010 that a banana banner taunting Peter Odemwingie, a Nigerian-Russian player, was not racist. Alexei Smertin, appointed as the Russian football union's anti-racism inspector, appeared to make a mockery of his role in 2015 where reference is said there was no racism in Russia and that bananas throw at black players were done so for “fun”.

Racist incidents and flags have actually been on the rise in Russian football over the past year, a recent report saw. Fans have sung chants about monkeys and bananas, and banners with far-right emblems have been spotted in stadia.

Alexei
In 2015 Alexei Smertin appeared to make a mockery of his role as Russian football's anti-racism inspector when he said there was no racism in Russia. Photograph: Aaron Chown/ PA

As the Football world cup drew closer and the Russian authorities realised that the issue could not simply be giggled off, they started to take action, penalty clubs over racist incidents. But there is still doubts concerning the level of penalty, with penalties typically symbolic and players or coaches who react to racist abuse receiving two-match bans.

There is some evidence that the situation in Russian society at large is improving: violent attacks on black foreigners have been on the wane over the past decade, and some black residents of Moscow say the main issue now is outdated stances rather than racial hatred.

” The vast majority of Russians are not racist ,” said long-term resident John Mann, an African American.” People here don't always have the same cultural framework for what is or isn't politically correct to say, but the majority of members of the time it's without malice .” Mann said he had experienced more genuinely racist incidents in the US or on visits to Britain than he had in Moscow.

Some racist incidents in Russia may be born out of ignorance but still appear shocking, such as Russians parading in blackface before a Cameroon match in the Confederations Cup last year, or Spartak Moscow tweeting a video of black players training with the caption:” Ensure how chocolates melt in the sun “.

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Some participants in the Carnaval Sochi Fest 2017 procession wore blackface, while others carried bananas. Photograph: Artur Lebedev/ TASS

Vladimir Putin and the Russian authorities have built recurred statements that the 2018 Football world cup will provide a chance for foreigners to discover Russia, but rights campaigners hope the process will be a two-way street.

” The 1980 Olympics opened up Russia and the opinions of Muscovites in general. I hope it will be a two-way street and people will become more open ,” said Pavel Klymenko, of the anti-discrimination network Fare.” Some racist incidents are organised by the most hardcore fans, but some are just a result of ignorance .”

Federico Addiechi, Fifa's head of sustainability and diversity, said there were several steps before stopping a game if racist incidents were observed, including removing individual delinquents and making announcements over the stadium Tannoy. In extreme cases, players will be taken off the pitch by the officials.

” If the referee has the impression that something is very visible and it involves a number of fans and can only be dealt with by stopping the game, then they have been instructed to do so ,” Addiechi said.” It's a last resort and we haven't seen it yet, but the procedures are in place .”

He said he was not expecting serious trouble given the nature of Football world cup crowd.” This is not a hardcore ultras club crowd but a more diverse fan base ,” he said.

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