Russia's fans celebrate victory over Saudi Arabia at the start of the 2018 World Cup, in Moscow, Russia, June 14 2018. South Africans will be more aware than people in most other countries about the long and unresolved debate about mixing sport and politics. Picture: REUTERS
Russia's fans celebrate victory over Saudi Arabia at the start of the 2018 World Cup, in Moscow, Russia, June 14 2018. South Africans will be more aware than people in most other countries about the long and unresolved debate about mixing sport and politics. Picture: REUTERS

Every four years, soccer fans take a month off normal life and are generally glued to their TV screens for possibly the mostly widely watched sporting event in the world.

The curious thing about the World Cup is that its spell is far-reaching and goes well beyond the 32 nations that are participating. Even South Africans, who haven’t had a team in the tournament since we hosted in 2010, will be spending a lot of time in front of the TV over the next month.

Of course, these events are not always just about the sport.

South Africans will be more aware than people in most other countries about the long and unresolved debate about mixing sport and politics. And due to our own history, perhaps we should also be worried about whether the World Cup, which is supposed to be symbol of global unity, should be held in a country that doesn’t have the best of reputations when it comes to fighting racism within its soccer fields.

Racism on Russian soccer stands has been rife for many years

A reminder on Thursday was a report from the UK’s The Guardian newspaper quoting a Russian legislator warning local women not to have sex with men who are not white, lest they become single mothers to mixed-race children. "We must give birth to our children. These [mixed-race] kids suffer and have suffered since Soviet times," the parliamentarian was quoted as having told the Govorit Moskva radio station.

Another lawmaker said foreign fans could bring viruses and infect Russians, the newspaper reported.

Racism on Russian soccer stands has been rife for many years. France and Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba was subjected to racist chants during a friendly game earlier in 2018, prompting Fifa, not always the most proactive organisation on such questions of morality, to fine the Russian Football Union. The amount involved, equivalent to about R300,000, would make one question the seriousness with which they take the issue.

The Guardian also reported earlier in June that one of England’s black players, Danny Rose, had told his family that he didn’t want them travelling to Russia "because of racism and anything else that may happen", explaining that he didn’t want "to be worrying, when I’m trying to prepare for games, for my family’s safety". It wasn’t an irrational stance either, for a player who earlier in his career had suffered racial abuse at the hands of Serbian fans, only to be sent off when he kicked a ball into the stands in frustration.

Contrast that with the spirit during the 2010 World Cup. The tournament was lauded for the way it united people across the nation’s racial and class divides, showcasing to the world that once in a while we are able to put our many challenges aside and unite towards a common goal. Former Bafana Bafana player MacBeth Sibaya had a different take, telling the BBC that racism in this country was worse than anything he experienced while playing club soccer in Russia.

Other commentators have given their reasons why holding the tournament in Russia was not a good idea — ranging from the erosion of democracy to its foreign policy. And there’s the Qatar World Cup to come in four years and the debate will be replayed again, given to concerns about that country’s human rights record and treatment of construction workers building its stadiums.

There are always good reasons not to hold a tournament like this in any particular country. In our case, one could question if the expenditure was morally justified. In Qatar, pressure from the International Labour Organisation and others has already led to some improvement in workers’ conditions, so there is evidence that the international gaze sometimes does produce results.

It remains to be seen if racism will blight the World Cup. If it does, it might at least, through sheer embarrassment, prompt the world governing body to take a more proactive and aggressive stance in tackling it. And if we manage to go through the next month without incident, it will be a positive sign that progress is being made.