The Beautiful Game is being stripped of all its glory by a bigoted minority

Is Russia the new old-South Africa in the world of sport?

This is not a question that can be taken lightly by UEFA, the controlling body of football in Europe, or even FIFA, after Manchester City’s Ivory Coast player Yaya Toure said that he was subjected to racist taunts by Russian fans of CSKA during a match between City and the Moscow team recently.

Over the last few years, incidents of racism have escalated dangerously — particularly in Eastern Europe, Spain and Greece, with fans belonging to far-right extremist groups demonstrating some of the worst facets of tribalism and racist prejudice.

Russia has been allotted the 2018 World Cup, and while its organisers might choose to ignore such incidents as minor irritants, the world’s greatest — and inarguably the most watched and celebrated — sporting event cannot live with the most potentially noxious version of human bigotry 10 years after a man of colour first occupied the White House.

“If we [Black players] aren’t confident at the World Cup, coming to Russia, we don’t come,” Toure said even as UEFA began investigating his complaints against CSKA fans.

No parallel

Racism may be older than sport, but its proliferation in Russia, particularly in football games where it has become endemic, has no parallel in the new millennium, no matter that it does exist in other parts of Europe and elsewhere in the world.

A country of high culture that gave the world some of the greatest writers of the 19th century, including Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekov, cannot afford to don the begrimed image that its so-called football fanatics have forced on it.

Surely, this is no knee-jerk, exaggerated reaction to a solitary incident. Along with the abuse of players of African origin, hate crimes against immigrants are on the rise, too, in Russia.

Predictably, a CSKA spokesperson has denied that there were any such incidents during the match. But the executive director of the European anti-discrimination body, Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), Piara Powar, thinks otherwise.

“Yaya Toure is absolutely right in raising the spectre of African players of African heritage not going to the 2018 World Cup — and without them there will not be a World Cup in Russia,” Powar was quoted as saying on BBC Sport’s website.

“I wouldn’t blame them — in this era players are the most powerful force and if the players said they are not going there wouldn’t be a World Cup, or if there was it would be meaningless,” said Powar.

This is a time when neither Russia nor any powerful controlling body in the game, including UEFA and FIFA, can afford to be in a state of denial. The Beautiful Game is being stripped of all its glory by a tiny minority of intellectually and emotionally challenged people who appear to claim supremacy on the basis of skin pigmentation levels.

That such creatures of the Dark Ages should be around — and should actually threaten to ruin our fun five years down the line in Russia — may seem unthinkable. But in our deeply flawed world, the unthinkable is part of our everyday struggle to come to terms with harsh realities, even in an area of activity (sport) which, one might think, would be insulated from the jaundice that enfeebles life in general.

Earlier this year, Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia made a thinly-veiled racist remark against Tiger Woods, saying that he would invite the American over for a meal and serve “fried chicken.”

Garcia later apologised, but so did Dean Jones after referring to Hashim Amla as a “terrorist.” So did Jones’s countryman Darren Lehmann 10 years ago after his infamous “Black ….” rant while walking into the dressing room during a match against the Sri Lankans.

While as a coloured people, we Indians tend to often think of ourselves as prey rather than predator when it comes to racism, the sordid Monkey-gate business involving Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds was very much an act of racism, whether we choose to admit it or not.

Over the centuries, but particularly over the last five or six decades, tremendous progress has indeed been made to rid sport of the blight of racism. But it has been hard and incremental, and we have not seen the last of the scourge.

“Try flagging down a cab after 10 p.m. in New York. No driver will stop if you are black,” said the late Arthur Ashe, as erudite a tennis player as I have ever met in four decades.

Things might have changed a bit around the Grand Central in the Big Apple since those days in the 1970s, but sport itself still needs a giant leap if it is to triumph over racial prejudices in its arenas.

An African-American, Muhammad Ali, may be the greatest gladiator and the most celebrated athlete of all times, but the average sportsperson from the continent that gave birth to the human race — Africa — is yet to find the dignity and justice that he/she deserves.

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