Last week, it seemed like Erving Botaka-Yobama had gotten his big break.
The 19-year-old soccer player was signed on July 14 by Torpedo Moscow, a club that plays in Russia's third division. But just six days later, his contract was terminated — and critics say it's because Botaka-Yobama is black.
Though Botaka-Yobama was born and raised in Russia, his parents are Congolese. His signing was met with a torrent of hate from some of Torpedo's hardcore fans. “There may be black in our team's colors, but there is only white in our supporters ranks,” wrote a group called the Zapad-5 Ultras on VK, Russia's equivalent of Facebook, according to the Moscow Times. Another post threatened the player, according to the Sun, a British tabloid: “Since you consider it acceptable to come into our home and our family without regard for our rules and traditions, we reserve that same right. ... We will see who comes out on top.”
By Friday, Botaka-Yobama's contract had been canceled. In a statement, Torpedo's owner claimed the reversal happened because Botaka-Yobama's current team requested a transfer fee. “There is no 'skin color' in our criteria,” Roman Avdeyev, the owner, said to Sportfm.ru, according to the Moscow Times. “We've never noticed it and will never notice it.”
Russia's soccer players' union condemned the fans' antics. “There have been changes in attitude after the World Cup, but a group of idiots still remains,” said Alexander Zotov, the head of the All-Russian Union of Footballers, according to the Moscow Times. “People with a limited worldview exist in any country. We saw how open our society and people were” during the tournament.
It's not the first time Torpedo fans have been called out for racism. In 2014, a group of the club's supporters were accused of making monkey sounds toward players of color on opposing teams.
Such racist displays have been common elsewhere in Russian soccer. “Racism against black players is still there in the stadiums. Every time they receive the ball you can hear it,” said Russian-Nigerian player Peter Odemwingie to the Daily Mail in 2010, the year that fans of his former club in Russia unveiled a racist banner to celebrate his departure. A study of the 2016-2017 season in Russia by FARE, an organization that fights discrimination in European soccer, found that nearly 90 racist and far-right incidents had occurred at games.
Just last September, Spartak Moscow fans were accused of “racist behavior” toward some Liverpool players, and one of the team's defenders was charged last month with racially abusing another player. In March, the Russian Football Union was fined nearly $26,000 after fans hurled racial slurs at the French team during a friendly match against Russia in St. Petersburg.