Nigeria international Bryan Idowu has opened up about his experiences of racism in Russia.
He could be playing in the World Cup next month for Nigeria.
Idowu, whose Nigerian father came to Russia as a student, made his international debut at left back in November and scored against Argentina. If chosen for Nigeria’s World Cup team, he could end up playing Argentina again, and in his hometown.
As a young player for Zenit St. Petersburg, a club with a far-right fan base, Idowu was abused by a supporter while returning from training.
“There’s no black in Zenit’s colors,” he recalls the fan saying. “‘What’s going on there, and why are you in the kit?’ My friend got angrier than I did. I just responded with a smile.”
Other locals, however, urged him to become “the first black guy at Zenit,” before he ended up leaving the club to find first-team football.
FIFA is investigating Russia over monkey chants aimed at France players during a friendly in March. Last month, the Russian Football Union fined two top clubs, Zenit and Spartak Moscow, for racist chants.
Idowu, who plays for Amkar Perm, told The Associated Press he’s been racially profiled by Russian police — at one stage so often that he and a friend placed bets on the subway on which of them would be stopped and searched. He’s also been racially abused twice on the field, and believes fans view monkey chants as a tactic to help their team.
“I think most of them do that to put pressure on a player psychologically, maybe so he doesn’t want to keep playing,” Idowu said.
“It could just be because someone finds it funny. … Sometimes I’m walking along (the street) and there’s five guys, or a guy with his girlfriend, and one of them sees me and makes a joke so his friends will laugh.”
Despite the recent cases, Idowu said racist incidents have become less common in the last five years.
“It’s really changed strongly,” he said.
“[Russian] people speak with friends from other countries and they go abroad more often and meet people there, and they just become more positive. The World Cup will help with that.”
Observers who track racism in Russian football say it remains high by European standards but is becoming less blatant.
Peter Odemwingie, another Russian-Nigerian player, left Lokomotiv Moscow for West Bromwich Albion in 2010, Lokomotiv fans celebrated his departure with a banner reading “Thanks West Brom” with a picture of a banana.
A major Zenit fan club published a manifesto calling for an all-white, all-heterosexual team in 2012 shortly after the signing of Brazil forward Hulk.
Monkey chants remain common at games, partly because they’re harder to track on surveillance systems, said Pavel Klymenko of the FARE Network, which helps UEFA and FIFA investigate discrimination and racism cases. He added other fans don’t intervene because they are scared of far-right groups.
“It’s very easy to get your head hammered in the stands if you publicly disagree with something that’s going on,” Klymenko said.
“The culture of violence and the dominance of the far-right groups with violence is a major problem.”
Ahead of the World Cup, there hasn’t been enough emphasis on anti-racism education alongside enforcement and sanctions, said Klymenko, who is writing a guide with safety tips for foreign fans.
Speaking last month to the AP, World Cup organising committee chief executive Alexei Sorokin said football racism in Russia was no worse than in “many countries.”
“The situation with racism has improved significantly,” he said. “It’s not depicting the mood of the society.”