Asif Burhan on Russia ahead of the FIFA World Cup
Asif Burhan, who began blogging for Kick It Out during the 2012 UEFA European Championships, provides readers with a look at the social and cultural impact of football nationally and globally.
Asif has travelled to over 75 cities around the world watching more than 100 games. His trips have been entirely self-funded and unsupported, a personal odyssey to experience as many different footballing cultures as possible.
For his latest feature, Asif travelled to Russia for the FIFA Confederations Cup, along with former Raise Your Game mentee Amber Thiara, to explore the world’s biggest country ahead of hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
“Will our life be better because of this; some people say it will. Some day they will all fly somewhere else – the great beautiful circus. How will we remember the World Cup, how will the world remember us here?” A South African, FIFA World Cup 2010 BBC Closing Montage
On our last day in Russia, as we made our way on the metro to the expensive new Vnukovo aeroexpress shuttle whisking foreign tourists to one of three international airports in this London-sized megalopolis, my fellow journalist Amber and I saw something we’d been told about for the first time.
For no apparent reason, a young man of Caucasian (central Asian) appearance was stopped at the bottom of the escalator by a member of the security force and was having his papers scrutinised as thousands of his lighter-skinned countrymen and women passed him by.
Two weeks earlier, it had been me stopped for no reason, humiliatingly searched by anti-terrorist police outside a football stadium who wouldn’t engage me in conversation or even allow me to put my hands in my pockets until they were assured I wasn’t an imminent threat.
This was in Glasgow, not Moscow. That day I was a travelling England fan, an official member with an official ticket yet the fact that I was an Asian man alone was enough to override all this. “I can assure you it has nothing to do with your ethnicity” I was told 20 minutes after I was first apprehended, “one of the members of our team is an Asian”.
What do we expect from sport? Can football change perceptions about ethnicity and challenge prejudice? Of course it can. On the 25th anniversary of the Premier League, even a cursory look at the radical alteration in the demographics of the players and managers that make up “our” league demonstrates how football has opened up our minds to different styles and cultures. Can football change the lives of people like the man we saw stopped on the metro. No.
Leon Mann, a diversity campaigner and founder of Football’s Black List, told me “What was being reported by ethnic minorities on the ground, in Russia – and not just Russia – communities were facing issues from extreme right-wing groups. During a World Cup, I’m sure there’s a way to control that. However, I’m more interested what a World Cup can do to educate people and help move us to a different space.”
As journalists and fans, we sweep into a country we know nothing about, make generalised assumptions based on chance encounters and half-truths and think we reach some sort of conclusion. Is Russia a racist or homophobic country? Is it safe to visit? Who knows? Russia is a country of over 140 million people living across a vastness beyond our comprehension shaped by an, at-times, brutal history we can’t even begin to understand.
Will Russia 2018 be a great World Cup? Almost certainly yes. The current malaise of the National Team shouldn’t mask how passionate this country is about the game. They are the game’s first European champions. From Yashin to Arshavin, they have produced stars who have lit up major tournaments. Its stadiums are sparkling and built in cities, for the most part, with a proud footballing history in a successful and sustainable league.
Is Russia accessible? The new concept of the Fan ID, an accreditation awarded to match ticket holders as trialled by Amber, worked smoothly. No visa or additional documentation was required for entry into the country for the duration of the tournament. There was also free city travel on matchday plus discounts at some bars and restaurants.
For those who have never been and may never return, next summer’s World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see everything from the Kremlin to the Caucasus, Lake Ladoga to Lake Baikal for the cost of a return flight and a £80 category 3 ticket to a group game without the dissuasive cost and hassle of visa invitations and queues at your local embassy.
Major sporting events allow us to live in a bubble. We in London should remember, we lived through one almost exactly five years ago. Remember that London? Bit different to today’s. If you were in Russia reading about the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, would you want to go to a World Cup in England?
In his seminal book on the 1990 World Cup, All Played Out, Pete Davies coined a phrase for this bubble – Planet Football. As Leon explained to me: “During a football tournament, things aren’t quite the same. How much you can learn about a country during a tournament? You have to be cautious.”
In our week in Moscow, we lived through it. A place where speaking English got you through doors, where FIFA controlled the price of beer and the only colour that mattered was the colour of your shirt. This is the only Russia people travelling to the World Cup are likely to witness.
For those not travelling on the “FIFA ticket” the experience may differ. We were told first-hand by women from East Africa and South Asia travelling on normal tourist visas of being detained without explanation at Moscow’s airports, one overnight.
Smiling young volunteers and omnipresent police officers may be reassuring to many, but less so if none of those people look like you. It is here where Russia will surprise you with an ethnic mix far more marked than its neighbouring Slavic countries.
In a country which shares borders with more states than any other there will always be osmosis. It is a pity that these Russians are not the ones, for the main, represented in advertisements for the World Cup or even represented in the Russian National Team.
Yet, Moscow is not London. There are no areas of substantial immigrant populations created by the legacy of Empire and EU open borders. As a visiting tourist, whether this is enough to make you uncomfortable is a personal feeling. Do you travel only to be around people who look and behave like you?
Jehmeil Lemonius, of Kick It Out and Stonewall FC, will not go to the World Cup next summer: “Being black and an openly gay football player is something which I don’t think is necessarily celebrated in that part of the world. If you look at the legislation, I think it’s pretty apparent they’re not the most tolerant of the LGBT community.”
As Alan Moore, an Irish journalist working and living in Russia, explained: “It’s not surprising in a country where the two dominant religions (Russian Orthodoxy and Islam) are very conservative in gender roles. It is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Yet he stressed: “There is no danger whatsoever for people who are LGBT to visit Russia”.
The truth is whatever I or anyone else writes, you have already made up your mind about whether the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 is an exciting adventure worthy of your time and money or a risk you’re not willing to take. Some people will never go to a World Cup. Some people will never go to Russia. Yet, they are more than willing to have an opinion on both.
The question we should be asking ourselves is why we in England are less willing to accept Russia as World Cup hosts than a Germany, United States or an Australia. Does it say something about Russia or does it say more about ourselves and our own prejudice?
Troy Townsend, Education Manager at Kick It Out, explained this: “I have to talk to people about understanding different aspects of discrimination. A lot of the players are living on perception – they’ve heard this and heard that.”
If England were going to the World Cup with a team capable of winning, would you more willing to go? History suggests you would, substantially more travelling English fans went to Portugal in 2004 and Germany in 2006 than the more easily-reached France last summer. Our own woes at the ineptitude of our team or any lasting bitterness at England’s failed 2018 World Cup bid is not any excuse to deprive Russian people of the joy of welcoming the world.
As a writer I can only give you the facts from my own experience. Mana Nsang from Cameroon intends to go: “The only way to know if the media is portraying Russia properly, is to go there and forge your own opinion.”
As Troy told me: “The media is our knowledge, if you’ve not been out there, that’s where you gain your knowledge from.The World Cup in Russia will go on with or without you. If you truly love football you will want to be part of it.
“Russians are going to embrace people and I would hope the celebratory part of the World Cup would have a much bigger impact than the negative part of the World Cup.”
Troy concluded: “Certain people will never change their attitudes and mindset no matter who’s in front of them but hopefully it will have that positive effect and everyone from different backgrounds, religions and cultures are getting on with each other just as we expect them to be.”