In the lead-up to the World Cup in Russia, the western press has repeatedly voiced concerns over the tournament’s organisation.
One thing is certain, there is little reason to fear excessive force by police or conflict with the locals. Although Russia has proven unable to reform its football or prepare its national team for the tournament, the level of security at the World Cup should be fine.
A lot of the fear felt by those contemplating travelling to Russia stems from stereotypes about the country and its fans, which often do not have any basis in reality. Reports of poor behaviour amongst fans at matches are often based on the actions of so-called ultras, organised fan groups which travel to away games with their clubs and often end up in fights with opposition supporters.
However, these ultras tend not to be interested in attacking peaceful fans, even those of opposing teams. Not only that, but these groups are formed around particular clubs.
Nothing similar exists for the national team. It is unlikely that fans travelling to Russia for the World Cup will encounter anything like this because the majority of fans at our stadiums are ordinary people who are not at all disposed towards physical violence.
Additionally, Russia’s law-enforcement agencies have plenty of experience policing big matches, both at club level, when most problems occur - particularly when teams like Zenit, Spartak and CSKA are involved - and featuring the national team, which sees the arrival of large numbers of foreign supporters.
In the end, though, everything went off without a hitch, and visiting supporters did not even find themselves at odds with the opposing CSKA and Spartak Moscow fans as they entered the stadium under the watchful eye of the police.
The same thing happened when CSKA played Young Boys in August. Although the Swiss fans all but fled from approaching Russian journalists, police and stadium staff were able to ensure their safety and avoid any scandal.
Fans of Man Utd, who have played in Russia four times in the last eight years, will have no bad memories of poor organisation or unwelcoming locals in Moscow or Rostov.
International matches give even less reason to worry, as last year’s Confederations Cup showed. Mexican, Chilean and Ivorian fans alike were left not with a poor taste in their mouths, but with a mutual love for Russians, who in turn were charmed by the foreign visitors. Russian Twitter feeds were overflowing with video footage of emotional Chilean supporters paired with inspiring words and smiling selfies.
Speaking to Goal, World Cup 2018 ambassador Victoria Lopyreva said: “People are not coming here to fight. Football is something that really unites people, and people are going to come here to celebrate, to have fun, to enjoy themselves and watch the beautiful game, because all of the top players are taking part at the World Cup. This will be the safest World Cup ever.”
The issue of racism has been another talking point ahead of the tournament. England left-back Danny Rose recently caused a stir when he asked his family not to travel to Russia for the tournament, fearing that they would be subjected to racist abuse. “I’m worried about their safety,” the Spurs star said at the time.
It is true that there have been cases of racist chanting in Russian football, such as that directed by Zenit fans towards RB Leipzig players. Incidents such as these are deplorable and they evoke shame and embarrassment from Russia’s civilised inhabitants.
They arise to a large extent due to the Russian mentality. Locals are closed off from other cultures and are not always open to new experiences. However, there are far more supporters who count Pogba, Dembele and Mane amongst their idols than there are ‘fans’ of the kind that FIFA, UEFA and the clubs themselves are fighting against.
The bigots are in the overwhelming minority and foreigners travelling to Russia for the World Cup are far more likely to encounter pleasant discoveries. They will learn that not all Russians constantly drink vodka and wear fur hats, while Russians will be buoyed by the positive mood created by visitors who come from overseas, bringing with them a different view of the world.
The large majority of Russian football supporters are tolerant of people of other races. Many of their clubs’ top stars, after all, are of foreign descent. Spartak fans worship Quincy Promes, while CSKA supporters still remember the heroics of Vagner Love and Keisuke Honda. The key stars in Lokomotiv’s 2017-18 title win were Manuel Fernandes and Jefferson Farfan.
During preparations for the World Cup, stewards underwent training during which they were told to inform police of any cases of discriminatory behaviour in the stands. Fans who have already been accused or found guilty of untoward conduct have not been granted Fan IDs, which are necessary to attend games. These include the hooligans that caused trouble at Euro 2016, fighting with their English counterparts in the streets and also in the stadium following their group clash. Russia’s fear of appearing unwelcoming far outstrips visitors’ fear of Russian hooligans.
Indeed, there is great excitement among the Russian people. We can already see this now in the faces of the people who welcomed the Panamanian team to Russia; the crowds who welcomed Mohamed Salah, hoping that he recovers from his injury as soon as possible; the Krasnodar youth players pushing to get close to the arriving Spanish team.
It must be said that Russia is behind the West in terms of the ability to accept foreign peoples, cultures and mentalities. However, hosting the world’s foremost football tournament will allow Russia to prove that it has learned to better itself and will allow visitors to see this country and its people in a new light.