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Football unites and divides

Modern Russia inherited the legacy of the two supranational entities – the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Both have shaped the population, culture and of course football in the past century.

While the Russian Empire was responsible for the conquest of Siberia, continental expansion and defining the multinational population of today’s Russia, it also attracted those from the west who would introduce the sport of football at the turn of the 20th century. The Soviet Union saw the development of football as a peoples’ game in Russia and tried to shape the identity of the ‘Soviet citizen’ overriding the individual national identities of the republics.

Russian clubs

Clubs founded during the Soviet times were almost exclusively attached to industries, the army or the police. So, for example, Lokomotiv clubs were formed by railways, Dynamo indicated a club of the police and CSKA were linked to the army.

In other regions club names were attached to the leading industry - Krylya Sovetov in Samara as a reference to the aerospace industry and Rostselmash in Rostov to agricultural machinery.

Spartak Moscow stands out as a ‘peoples’ team’, named after Spartacus and symbolising the spirit of revolution and uprising against the oppressors.

Due to the vertical centralisation of industries in the Soviet Union, many of the best players in the Soviet Republics – Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and others were administratively transferred to the Moscow clubs.

The 15 republics of the Soviet Union ensured a colourful mosaic for the Soviet national team; at different times featuring legends of all nationalities and religions - Nikita Simonyan of Armenia, Mikheil Meskhi, Slava Metreveli of Georgia, Ukrainians Leonid Blokhin and Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Soviet Jewish footballers Boris Razinskiy and Mikhail Gershkovich, to name just a few.

The legendary goalkeeper of Spartak Moscow and the Soviet national team, Rinat Dasayev, who has been involved in World Cup 2018 ceremonies, said that he always had a Quran in a small bag he kept in goal along with his spare gloves.

Despite the strong focus of Soviet football around Moscow teams, the rivalries between Spartak Moscow and Dynamo Kyiv, as well as Dinamo Tbilisi, were fierce and matches between them comparable to derbies. In the 1980s, football became an arena for re-emerging national identities and the desire to break up from the Soviet Union by Georgians and Ukrainians.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union a new life began for Russian football and footballers. The teams had to catch up with the game’s increasing commercialisation, although even now many teams still rely on industry giants or state monopolies. Some businesses in the Russian regions are advised to support football, hockey or volleyball teams by the government as a form of ‘social responsibility’.

Russian football and ethnic minority players

The first players of ethnic minority background from outside of the former Soviet Union appeared in Russia in the 1990s, with Brazilians Luis Andre Da Silva and Mario dos Santos Junior playing for Lokomotiv Nizhny Novgorod in 1995.

The first successful Brazilian was Luis Robson Pereira da Silva, or simply Robson, who played for Spartak Moscow in 1997-2001. He was loved by many Spartak fans and recognised as being among the best players in the Russian league. Many talented African and Latin American players have since come to Russia, with some such as the Brazilian-born goalkeeper for the current team, Guilherme Marinato, even naturalising to play for Russia.

The first African player in the Russian top league is considered to be Nigerian Augustine Eguavoen, who joined Torpedo Moscow in 1997. The future Super Eagles coach spent one season in Russia, playing 25 games for Torpedo.

Nearly every team in Russia has a story about their most loved black player, but many faced an enormous amount of racism from opposing teams - and often even their own fans.

The story of Peter Odemwingie, born in Tashkent, in the Uzbek Soviet Republic in 1981 to a Nigerian father and a Russian mother, both medical students at the time, illustrates well the stories of Africans coming to the Soviet Union, finding a new home and creating families, as well as the racism that black footballers have had to put up with in Russia.

In 2010, after playing three successful seasons for Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia’s top flight, Odemwingie signed with the English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion. Lokomotiv fans ‘celebrated’ his departure by displaying a large banner reading ‘Thanks, West Brom’ and the image of a banana.

In 2011, legendary Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos, then playing for Anzhi Makhachkala, had a banana thrown at him from the stands in Samara. Russian hardcore fans would often imitate monkey noises whenever a black player touched the ball, a practice still common in many Russian stadiums today.

Russian ultras culture

It was in the mid-1990s when the most active Russian fans, known as ‘fanaty’ in the late Soviet Union, started to catch the ‘English disease’. Russian groups were largely copying the style, behaviour and often ideological trends of the newly discovered ‘ultras’ and ‘hooligan’ groups from England, Spain, Italy – at that time full of racist and neo-Nazi imagery, such as swastikas, Celtic crosses and other Nazi paraphernalia.

What started as copycat behaviour has since evolved into a specifically Russian mix of nationalism, nativism and sexism that now dominates most of the terraces behind the goals at Russian clubs. The distinction between ‘ultras’ and ‘hooligans’ was almost non-existent in Russia until recently, with most active fans engaging in physical confrontations with opponents in the streets or, later, in arranged fights in the woods.

These same groups would attack visible minorities on their way to or from the stadiums, developing a specific practice called ‘white wagons’ where any non-Slavic looking passengers would be viciously attacked on commuter trains.

The situation has since improved for many ethnic minorities, with a government crackdown on most nationalist street groups and increased attention paid to football hooligans because of the upcoming World Cup. However, it is far from being extinct.

This season Spartak Moscow fans twice directed a racist chant asking “Why the f***k does our national team need a monkey” at the Lokomotiv Moscow goalkeeper Guilherme Marinato.

Far-right groups among football fans are not regarded as a significant threat by the government, thus limiting the counter-action to negotiation with leaders and restraining the most public of their activities. On the other hand, the most radical political and far-right movements in society have been largely limited by the Russian authorities since 2013, with leaders arrested and street mobilisations reduced to several hundred people.

Russian law prohibits the display of Nazi symbols or anything similar. While the legislation is very strict on any German Nazi-related symbolism, it can be applied selectively often targeting opposition figures or activists, while many far-right football fans demonstrating neo-Nazi symbolism go unpunished.

A detailed account of discriminatory incidents in Russian football and the progress made, as well as regulatory measures taken by the Russian Football Union, can be found in the joint reports of the Fare network and the Moscow-based Sova think-tank. We have been publishing these reports annually since 2012. Find out more here.