14 September ~ Next weekend West Brom fans will display a banner supporting new signing Peter Odemwingie, a reply to the racist one Lokomotiv fans hung following his transfer from Moscow. The messageboard reactions I read to it this week were perhaps typical of a lot of British fans: "Shame on Lokomotiv, respect to West Brom!"; "An intelligent answer"; "Brilliant, a worthy reply". What is perhaps more surprising is that these were written by Russian fans on the championat.ru forum. However, with the 2018 World Cup hosts announced in December, and the English newspapers seemingly now all onside, this is not an element of Russian football culture that will see much daylight in the UK.
It is not only the Lokomotiv fans who are being blamed. The "English PR machine" is being accused by many of making the most of the incident to ensure that the whole of Russia is judged by the standards of a minority that is "uncultured" and "ignorant". There already seems to have been some impact on the final outcome – the Nigerian FA has said it will not vote for Russia. The fans' argument is an easy one to follow – nobody supporting the English bid would want it to be seriously affected by the "significant minority" of Chelsea fans who recently chanted "Yiddo, Yiddo" at one of their own players, Yossi Benayoun.
However, responses to the picture of the banana in the banner (a crude reference to Russo-Nigerian Odemwingie's ethnicity) rather than to the whole incident perhaps show that there are still considerable differences between the reactions of many Russian and British football fans to racism. While many Russians felt the banner displayed ignorance, few could see why it had caused such deep offence. Some suggested that the English had simply lost their "famous subtle sense of humour" in not understanding what the banana represented.
To anyone who's visited a Russian football ground in the last 20 years, this attitude is probably not news. When I asked a Russian friend why some fans made monkey noises when black players on the opposition team got the ball, he couldn't understand why I thought it racist. He described it simply as a way of putting them off, suggesting that most people making the noises were not doing it maliciously.
Offensive as the banner was, it has to be hoped that the actions of a few will not have a huge effect on Russia's bid – it does not represent the country's tolerant fans and, in any case, the authorities will crack down on serious troublemakers. What is less certain is what they will be able to do in the long-term about the fans in between – the ones who join in the monkey chants because they think it's all a bit of a joke. Saul Pope