FIFA's anti-discrimination mechanisms are welcome, but words are not enough
MOSCOW -- When FIFA announced this week a new set of "anti-discrimination mechanisms" to address racist and/or discriminatory behavior by fans at the Confederations Cup in Russia, the main features were (1) that the referee can now abandon a match if spectator behavior is out of hand; and (2) that FIFA will have observers in the stadium to monitor and report anything untoward.
Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, proudly labeled these developments "groundbreaking," which prompted an obvious reply:
Consider that notion for a moment. If, in 2017, the specific delineation of how a referee should act when there is discriminatory behavior in the stands or the simple act of having an official present to keep an eye on the spectators qualifies as groundbreaking, what does that say about where the sport was previously on this important issue?
Hyperbole is hardly unique to Infantino (or FIFA), and a FIFA spokesman said that establishing this procedure has "empowered" referees more than in the past. But given this particular subject and this particular governing body and this particular host country, it feels reasonable to hold off on declaring any sort of real accomplishment until proposal becomes practice.
Remember, it was just last year that FIFA disbanded its committee charged with addressing racism, saying it had "completely fulfilled its temporary mission." And Russia, which has many incidents of racist behavior from fans in recent years, recently named former player Alexei Smertin as its chief racism investigator, despite the fact that, in 2015, he told the BBC that "there's no racism in Russia because it doesn't exist."
Smertin must have altered his viewpoint somewhat -- if only because racism investigator would be a strange job to have if there were literally nothing to investigate -- and FIFA has issued a variety of statements to clarify its commitment to fighting discrimination wherever it arises. However, the steady stream of incidents in Russian soccer, covering everything from banana throwing to flags with swastikas to fans demanding a club sign only white players is impossible to ignore.
Now it will get a more global examination. The Confederations Cup is, on every level, a dress rehearsal for next year's World Cup, and while infrastructure, stadium operations and transportation are surely important, fan behavior and visitor comfort and a general feeling of open-ness to the world might be the most critical components of what we see in Russia over the next few weeks.
Will there be incidents at matches? It is impossible to predict. Russia could be helped by the fact that ticket sales for this tournament have been choppy, with one official indicating that as many as half the total tickets remain unsold. In other words, the intensity surrounding this event is more lukewarm than boiling.
Yet in-stadium behavior is only one piece of the puzzle. At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, members of the LGBT community were understandably worried about their treatment in Russia, a country that has infamous laws related to "gay propaganda." With the World Cup just a year away, concerns still exist as gay people in Russia say that they continue to be targeted.
Not all discrimination in Russia is monkey chanting or banana throwing or any of the other more unseemly and obvious acts. FARE, a European anti-discrimination group, and SOVA, a similar group that works in the country, recently released an annual report on incidents in Russian soccer. The report noted a slight decrease in overall incidents from last year -- there were 89 during the 2016-17 season -- but highlighted numerous examples of more subtle hate messages.
Less-obvious Nazi symbols or number codes used by ultranationalist groups were popular on banners, and there were several reported incidents of anti-Semitism, including chants from Spartak Moscow fans directed at rival CSKA, whose then-coach, Leonid Slutsky, is Jewish. Even CSKA fans did not hesitate to target one of their own, as some fans held an anti-Semitic banner linking Slutsky's ethnicity to a run of bad play.
The Russian football association did not quite see things the same way as FARE, saying it did not detect a single incident of discriminatory behavior in the top three divisions this past season. That dichotomy -- of perception and reality not quite aligning -- is what makes for a combustible atmosphere as the soccer world arrives here.
To that end, FIFA made the grand gesture of announcing its new policies just days before the opening match of the Confederations Cup, and the timing seems purposeful. Yet policies such as the use of the crowd monitors, which have been in place for World Cup qualifiers for months, as well as a "three-step process" in which referees can have the in-stadium announcer admonish the crowd, suspend the match or abandon it altogether in the face of discriminatory behavior, might not be quite as revolutionary as Infantino has trumpeted.
In truth, the referee already had such a power. Just within the laws of the game that have been in place for years, it's clear that referees can make the decision to stop a match for a variety of reasons -- lights failing or weather conditions, for example -- as well as "due to spectator interference or any problem in the spectator area."
Certainly there's been some progress. FARE is overseeing the work of the in-stadium observers and has laid out clearly what should constitute an act of discriminatory behavior. A FIFA spokesman also stressed that there is now a clearer chain of communication, from security officers who might hear a chant to observers who might follow up to match officials on the field who will, presumably, feel a stronger ability to act.
One might also see that as confirmation that there are a large number of institutional layers between what goes on in the stands and how it is perceived on the field. So, is all this groundbreaking? Maybe, maybe not. At this point -- in this country -- FIFA's only path toward progress is to show that its stance is about more than just words.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.