It takes us about two hours in Moscow traffic to get to the Novogorsk training base, where we are to meet Christian Noboa, an Ecuadorian who playes for Dynamo Moscow. I am working as a TV producer, shooting a video to promote racial tolerance in Russian football. And until I worked on this piece, I had no idea about the full extent of local football racism.
For a multinational country that still prides itself on having defeated German Nazism, and given the Soviet Union's history of an official ideology of “internationalism," the widespread racism in Russia can be jarring. But it is a very big problem in Russian society, and seems to be amplified in football stadiums. Players from Africa and South America at Russian clubs suffer from racist chants and have bananas thrown at them during matches. The roll call of victims of "banana racism" includes World Cup winner Roberto Carlos.
The Soviet Union benefited from multi-ethnic teams, and had a great World Cup record: three quarterfinal and two semi-final finishes, and a 1988 appearance in the final of the European championship. These are achievements of which the current team can only dream.
When the Soviet Union broke up, the Russian team lost much of the ethnic diversity of the Soviet side — along with its talent. No more players from the “brother” nations: Ukrainians, Georgians, and others. The Soviet Union’s slogan of “Peoples' friendship and brotherhood” was replaced by “Russia for Russians!” chanted from the grandstands. This, unfortunately, coincided with the professionalization of the game. Players seem more concerned with personal success, ego and salaries than with national pride or the spirit of football.
Russian national team victories are now rare and sporadic, and thus all the more sweet. The memorable 3-1 Euro 2008 win over the Netherlands will remain in football history as the “Russian Football Miracle.” It turned into a countrywide street party. I still remember how a group of strangers in front of Red Square offered me a shot of vodka at 3 a.m. to share in their happiness.
Nevertheless, hopes are high for the current team. In Brazil, Russia's team has a chance to get to the play-offs. The team's coach (a foreigner!) Fabio Capello, who has the largest salary out of all the World Cup coaches, is jokingly reffered to as "the best player on the Russian team." The whole country is anxiously watching coach Capello, notorious for his heavy-handed discipline, and can't wait for the next "Russian football miracle."
Anna Prokhorkina is a freelance writer, director and producer based in New York City.