Ghanaian midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong was kicked out of the opening match of the Russian Premier League season on Friday after shouting back at fans in Moscow who were chanting monkey noises at him. The incident calls attention back to players’ threats to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia — already stained by corruption charges against FIFA — unless the country starts to rein in its virulently racist fan culture.
Frimpong was fighting for possession of the ball near the corner flag a half-hour into FC Ufa’s season kickoff match when the racist chants got under his skin. Video of the moment shows the player raising a middle finger to the Spartak Moscow fan who was abusing him and shouting something. Referee Vladimir Moskaleva walked immediately over and issued a red card, sending Frimpong to an early shower.
Russia’s soccer racists have a strong track record of turning sporting contests into hate-fests. There have been 99 separate incidents of racist fan demonstrations — chants or signs — and another 21 violent fan attacks motivated by race in the Russian league over the past two seasons, according to a study published earlier this year.
But no one nation has cornered the market for racist hooting from soccer fans. Players of color have frequently faced ugly chants at away matches in Italy, Spain, Germany, England, and elsewhere over the years, with the worst of it tending to occur in the lower divisions where media and official scrutiny is minimal. After some ugly video emerged this spring of Chelsea fans who’d traveled to France for a match against Paris St. Germain physically barring a black man from boarding a Paris train while singing a racist song, a review of fan racism in the British game turned up 350 separate incidents in just the past three years. During a 2014 match in the Spanish top flight, FC Barcelona right back Dani Alves made headlines when a Villareal fan threw a banana at him on the pitch, and he responded by picking it up and taking a bite to mock the racist troll in the stands.
While racism isn’t particular to Russian soccer, the reaction of Russian Premier League officialdom to Friday’s episode is unsettling and retrograde. The referee’s on-field decision to give a straight red card for cursing at fans is just the start. Frimpong’s own team is hanging him out to dry, with club executive Shamil Gazizov saying that he will not seek any sanction against Spartak Moscow over their fans’ behavior, even though teams and leagues elsewhere typically impose some kind of punishment for clubs whose fans commit such abuse.
Gazizov not only declined to pursue any league discipline for Spartak, one of the league’s leading sides. He also publicly criticized the 23-year-old Frimpong. “What Frimpong did was wrong. Sometimes you even have to hold back the tears and just put up with it,” Gazizov told The Guardian.
Frimpong apologized for losing his temper in a series of tweets, while also standing up for himself and his fellow African international players. “[I] want to apologize for the sending off after being provoked,” he wrote. It “shouldn’t have happened but also am a human being” who “shouldn’t be racially abused for the game that I love.” Other black players in the Russian league who have lost their cool with racist fans have also been punished for failing to take the dehumanizing shouts in stride. If recent examples are any precedent, the league may even decide to suspend Frimpong for multiple matches.
“I’m going to serve a sentence for being abused, yet we are going to hold a World Cup in this country where African [players] will have to come play football,” Frimpong added, before applauding Spartak’s fans and saying that the racist chants came from only one person in the crowd.
Frimpong, a former Arsenal player whose move to Russia represents a major downhill career slide, may have little traction to alter Russia’s institutional response to soccer fan racism. But Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure, arguably the single best active player from any African nation right now and a superstar for Manchester City in England, cuts a more influential figure. After Toure was on the receiving end of similar abuse from CSKA Moscow fans this spring at a Champions League match, he called for much stiffer sanctions against teams over fan racism. He has previously hinted that African nations might simply boycott the 2018 cup if Russia can’t get its act together, though Toure himself may well be too old to make the Cote d’Ivoire roster in three years.
Establishing an effective institutional response to fan racism is complicated. Some leagues force clubs to play in empty stadiums — essentially a financial penalty, since they lose that week’s arena revenues — and others levy direct fines. But if you’re a fan who gets off on going to the match on a Saturday specifically so that you can hurl psychological bile at black men playing for the other team, forcing your club to shell out a few thousand bucks does little to alter your calculus. Sometimes the clubs themselves will track down the fan responsible for a racist episode and bar him from their ground for life, as Villareal did with the man who threw a banana at Dani Alves. But in leagues where racist episodes get counted in the triple-digits each year, that whack-a-mole approach doesn’t seem to be working.
There’s a more promising disincentive contained in the new system of sanctions for racism that FIFA rolled out in 2013. The rules permit FIFA to dock a club points — literally knocking it back in the standings — or even relegate teams to a lower league if there is evidence of persistent fan racism despite initial financial penalties. But until that more serious sanction gets used, it will be an empty threat.