The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Russia, with its history of racist attacks and hooligans, put on a World Cup welcome? 

A souvenir vendor shakes hands with a Mexican football fan near Red Square in Moscow.
A souvenir vendor shakes hands with a Mexican football fan near Red Square in Moscow. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — For popular African musician Black Z, racism in Russia is no worse than in any other country, including those on the African continent.

“I’m black, I live in Moscow, and I sing for Russia,” the Congolese man says of the city he has called home for the past four years. “In all my time here, I’ve never had any problems.”

The 26-year-old has even created a song for the Russian national soccer team ahead of the World Cup. Called “Allez gagner” in his native French, or “Let’s win,” he hopes the track will lead Russia to victory.

But not everyone shares his rosy view. With Thursday’s opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia just around the corner, racism is rearing its ugly head. Russian soccer history has been marred by discrimination against non-white people, and incidents of racist and homophobic chants shot up over the past year, according to a study released last month by Russian rights group Sova and the Fare Network, a nonprofit that analyzes prejudice in soccer. 

Over the past few days, the social networking communities of Russian soccer fans have filled with taunts and hostile language toward minorities and teams opposing Russia. One group with 60,000 followers posted a song Tuesday called “White Pride” on its VKontakte page, Russia’s answer to Facebook. 

Black Z says racism exists all over the world, and points to America. But widespread and open racism in Russia prompted FIFA, the global soccer federation, to adopt new measures at this tournament. For the first time in its 88-year history, it has given referees the right to interrupt or call off a game if there are racist chants or slurs. 

Sign up for The Post’s daily World Cup newsletter

Some worry that is not enough. Danny Rose, a black player for England who was pelted with stones and subjected to monkey chants on the pitch in Serbia, said last week he has urged his family not to come and see him play in Russia, fearful they would suffer racist abuse. 

Rose’s concerns are not without precedent. Earlier this year, FIFA fined the country’s soccer union after an exhibition match between Russia and France in St. Petersburg turned nasty when Russian fans yelled racist chants at some of France’s top players — many of whom will again be competing on Russian soil during the World Cup. Russia’s national team was also fined for racist fan behavior at the last two European championships. 

Even the ever-confident head of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, admitted some last-minute worry Tuesday, telling a Swiss newspaper, Blick, that there were still risks of racism and riots.

According to Sova, Africans are the third-largest ethnic group to be targeted by racists in Russia, after people from former Soviet countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In the study, Sova and the Fare Network said they did not have “much confidence in the prevention of non-violent racist incidents, despite the many well intentioned reassurances,” adding that the Russian authorities did too little, too late. 

However, the groups were more positive in their outlook when it came to the looming prospect of Russian hooliganism. Street violence is still fresh in many soccer fans’ minds after extremely well-organized Russian men clashed with English men in the 2016 European championship in Marseille, France, leading to dozens of injuries, some serious. Russians touted their fans as heroes. 

Russia, whose many soccer hooligans were influenced by their English counterparts, has since cracked down on that kind of rioting at soccer matches. Though not officially banned from attending the tournament, known hooligans have been told by Russian police that violence will not be tolerated. All 32 participating countries have sent police officers to help Russia’s interior ministry combat rowdiness.  

Coming to their aid is a ban on alcohol on the free trains shepherding fans across Russia’s vast landscape from one city to another during the tournament. Some of those journeys are 30 hours or more. In the stadiums, spectators will be able to buy up to four beers at a time during the match, said Oraz Durdyev, legal and corporate affairs director for AB InBev Efes, the brewer that owns Budweiser, a World Cup sponsor.  

Compared with other European countries, Russia is not accustomed to seeing many foreign visitors. Moscow authorities expect 800,000 guests to the Russian capital from outside the former Soviet Union — arguably the most Moscow has ever seen. Fans from around the world have been descending on the city, where they have danced in groups near Red Square, waving their flags and chanting their countries’ names — much to the amusement of local onlookers. 

The novelty of the foreign flux has led to dramatic changes in Moscow, a great, hulking metropolis of 13 million not celebrated for its customer service. City authorities have taught their transport workers, including taxi drivers, basic English phrases and have even trained them in a practice not generally seen by strangers in Russia: smiling.

The city has beefed up its “tourist police,” who are meant to be more friendly, and the Moscow metro app is now available in six languages in addition to Russian. 

But as far as the local government is concerned, racism is not an issue. “I see no problems here. We didn’t do any special training for this (on transport),” said Deputy Mayor Maksim Liksutov, who is also the head of the department of transportation.  

The last time Moscow saw so many foreigners was at the 1980 Olympics, when about 200,000 people from over 70 countries arrived.

 “People were worried about racism then, and it was fine,” said Zimbabwean musician K. King, who is also a producer for Black Z. Before turning to music, the 34-year-old trained as a medical doctor in Russia, which he lovingly calls home. “It’s in the best interest of a country to be respectful, to not have hate crimes, to not have violence. Russia will succeed.”  

Anton Troianovski contributed reporting. 

2018 World Cup schedule and results

World Cup groups: Previews and predictions

Chechnya’s leader uses World Cup to extend his outreach to Middle East

International soccer’s fight against racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia

Lowly-ranked Russians, Saudis, meet to kick off World Cup

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news