Facing abuse and hostility

Emmanuel Frimpong of FC Ufa... provocation, response and a ban.-GETTY IMAGES

At almost the very moment when the group draw for the qualifiers of the 2018 World Cup was made in Saint Petersburg, two particularly nasty examples of racism which pervades Russian football had been reported, writes Brian Glanville.

Well, the draw for the qualifiers of the 2018 World Cup in Russia has been made and I wish I could be more excited about it. This, because it is all too plain that Russia should never have been awarded the tournament at all, with such alarming rumours of chicanery. Second, because by a deep irony at almost the very moment when the group draw was made in Saint Petersburg, two particularly nasty examples of racism which pervades Russian football had been reported.

First it was the case of Emmanuel Frimpong, once a midfielder on the books of Arsenal. Playing against Spartak Moscow, the 23-year-old was subjected to sustained monkey chants from the Moscow supporters. Eventually, incensed, he somewhat foolishly responded by raising his index finger at the tormentors in a familiar aggressive gesture. The consequence of which was that the Russian Football Union banned him for two games, but Spartak went unpunished.

An outraged Frimpong, properly astonished by the insistence of the Russian authority that it found no evidence of racism directed at the FC Ufa player, declared, “We live in a crazy world. Been banned for two games, acceptable on my part for the gesture, no problem with that. But for the Russian FA to say that they didn’t hear or see any evidence of racism is beyond a joke. I’ve always said we are blessed in England and how wonderful a country it is. Not saying there ain’t racism in England, of course, but not to this crazy extent.”

He was banned on the very same day that the Brazilian international striker Hulk, now playing for Zenit Saint Petersburg, declared that he suffered racism ‘almost every single match’ in which he plays. He was meant to be one of the leading international players making the World Cup draw in that same city, but he quickly disappeared from the list. Surprisingly, his manager, the Portuguese, Villas-Boas, formerly the manager of two London clubs, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, was quick to insist that Zenit had wanted him for training.

Weasel words, unworthy of a cultivated young coach. Yet, to be frank, I was most surprised when Hulk joined Zenit in the first place. Remembering how the experienced Dutch manager Dick Advocaat, who recently changed his mind by deciding to stay at Sunderland, having saved them from relegation, had declared that, when he himself was managing Zenit, he never dared to sign a black player, knowing the abuse and hostility they would face. I’m surprised indeed that Hulk has stayed with Zenit so long, whatever the large financial rewards.

Zenit ST. Petesburg's hulk... the Brazilian declared that he suffered racism `almost every single match' in which he plays.-AP

Not long ago there was also the example of a gifted black player in Peter Odemwingie, from Nigeria. Playing for another Moscow club in Lokomotiv, he was regularly and horribly insulted by the fans till he was eventually forced out. Whereupon they displayed a large banner inscribed with thanks to West Bromwich Albion.

None of this, of course, in any way has concerned the ineffable Sepp Blatter who was present at the draw, presumably secure in the belief that the FBI could not arrest him and extradite him here. The reason some felt why he didn’t attend the recent women’s World Cup in Canada. Not surprising perhaps that he had a friendly encounter with the notorious President Putin. In the course of which he assured Putin shamelessly that Russia had FIFA’s complete trust. Not the most convincing of compliments from a man who has been forced out of FIFA but has stubbornly clung onto office, determined to remain until next February. Putin actually surpassed him in defiant hypocrisy. While Blatter spoke of the FIFA executive committee’s ‘trust and confidence in Russia for the organisation of this competition,’ declaring, “We say yes to Russia. Our support is especially important during the current political situation,” Putin responded, “We see what’s happening around football. But I know how you feel about it. We thank you for concentrating your time and attention on football.” Was Blatter alluding to the current economic crisis in Russia, severely hit by the plunging prices of oil and gas on which it depends?

Meanwhile, we have still to see what developments there might be in the distressing case of Franz Beckenbauer, the idol for so long of German football. As we know, an interviewer in the devastating Sunday Times investigation into FIFA corruption quoted an informant, who said that Beckenbauer had taken large sums of money from the Russians. Subsequently, it emerged that he has frequented the chief Qatar fixer and been his guest in Qatar itself. There is still time to take the tournament away from Russia but one is scarcely over optimistic.

Coming up is the appointment of a successor to Blatter as President of FIFA and a pretty restricted field it is. Michel Platini, alas, seems to be the favourite and it was depressing to find two senior English officials speaking up in his favour. Gill, a major figure at Manchester United and now an English representative of FIFA is, beyond doubt, a figure of some substance and he has come out strongly in favour of Platini. So now, has a leading official at the FA, on a visit to St. Petersburg for the draw, the current chief executive of the FA, Martin Glenn.

Beyond dispute; but why Platini? Perhaps one should employ a French phrase translating to ‘for want of better’. Or perhaps you might say the least worst. As I have written before, Platini, however great a footballer he once undoubtedly was, has been a wretched administrator. You need hardly be reminded that he cast his World Cup 2022 vote for Qatar when the tournament was to be played in the burning heat of Qatar’s summer and then when protests were loudly heard, happily went along with the ploy to play the game during the European winter; putting the European clubs, whose interests he is supposed to serve, in chaos.

It has been suggested again, as we know, that he was doing the bidding of the then President of France, Sarkozy, who was concerned to ensure a supply of Qatar’s oil and gas. But surely the honourable thing to have done was either to refute or to resign. Sad to see the top English officials too blithely and irrationally still support Platini as the next FIFA President.