Given how much racism there is in Russia and how seldom Moscow seeks to rein it in, holding the 2018 World Cup in that country would be impossible, according to Jeffrey Webb, the vice president of FIFA, the international governing board of the sport.
Webb, who heads the football association in Latin American countries, expressed the hope that Russia will change course over the next three years. Otherwise, “as a result of the problems with racism, the world championship in Russia would become a major challenge for FIFA.
This is not the first time FIFA officials have spoken about the problem of racism in Russia. Joseph Blatter, the organization’s president, did so last week. And six weeks ago, the Football Against Racism in Europe organization published a joint report with Moscow’s SOVA monitoring agency about racism in Russia.
But Webb’s statement is the first time any senior official in that organization has suggested that FIFA might move the World Cup competition out of Russia to another country or countries, and as such, it constitutes a major challenge to Vladimir Putin who has made that event like the Sochi Olympics a centerpiece of his celebration of Russia’s return.
Two years ago, FIFA introduced a new program to struggle against any manifestations of racism among competitors or fans and specified that any team whose coaches or players “systematically” displayed racist attitudes toward other players should be disqualified. There have been several such incidents involving Russian players, and now FIFA appears to be acting.
In his statement last week, Blatter said that “the problem of racism constantly is on the agenda. Regrettably, we encounter it in various parts of the globe on a daily basis.”
In the run-up to the Sochi Olympiad, many activists complained about Russian racism and about Moscow’s decision to stage a sporting event on the site of an 1864 genocide conducted against the Circassians. But no one in the International Olympic Committee was prepared to threaten Moscow with a cancellation if Russia did not deal with those criticisms.
Of course, that was before Putin invaded Ukraine, seized Crimea, and the international community responded with sanctions. And it was also before the manifestations of racism in Russia attracted as much attention as they have in recent months, the result of official Russian government support for some of the most noxious nationalists.
If FIFA did cancel the competition in Russia, that would be a major black eye for a country that cares passionately about football and plans to hold the contests in 12 stadiums in 11 cities. But because of that passion and of concerns about face, its threat to do so puts far more pressure on Putin and on those around him to change course than any sanctions to date.