Yaya Toure met with Jeffrey Webb, the head of Fifa’s anti-racism task force just after Toure’s team Manchester City lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. According to a spokeswoman for Webb, speaking to the BBC, the two had “a good conversation.”
I don’t know exactly what could possibly constitute “a good conversation” between these two, considering Toure, just three days prior, was telling BBC Afrique that a boycott of the Russian World Cup in 2018 was possible due to abhorrent recurring instances of racism from fans towards black players in Russia. This even began to affect Toure personally when he represented Manchester City in a Champion’s League game against CSKA Moscow and was subject to monkey chanting. A part of me which is growing increasingly dissatisfied with Fifa’s ability to manage world football; I am concerned this may mean “a good conversation” for Fifa and the Fifa World Cup in Russia in 2018, but not necessarily a good conversation for football more generally.
Don’t get me wrong – I am in part very pleased with Sepp Blatter’s, head of Fifa, response, which was to call the current punishment for incidences of racism (stadium closures) quite weak, and establish that he desires to see teams expelled from competitions when incidents of racism occur instead.
But when on BBC Radio Five Live Leroy Rosenior, formerly of West Ham, suggested that players threatening with a boycott might lead to stronger action from Fifa and Uefa on issues of racism in football his exact words were “boycotting the World Cup, which is sanctioned by Fifa, is a threat that maybe needs to be a serious threat because you want the authorities to come up with something off the back of a threat which will actually get something positive happening.” I think he hit the nail on the head and the earnestness of that threat genuinely ruffled the feathers of Sepp Blatter and as a football fan I want them to remain ruffled.
In the last two years, I think the various instances in Russia and Italy – as well as closer to home – have led a lot of football fans to begin to worry that we’re actually moving backwards on not only this issue and others too. I remember the media shock when Hulk and Axel Witsel arrived at Zenit, St. Petersburg to a letter requesting they be sold on due to their race from the main fans’ association. Football has been a global game for a long time and players of all different races have been competing in it for even longer. A whole generation around the world have been brought up worshipping footballers, without race being an obstacle or even a novelty (now I think about it two posters hung on my wall as a boy: Peter Schmeichel’s and Andy Cole’s) and yet these issues persist.
I think the threat of a boycott should be maintained, precisely so that Fifa really learn from this in a way that lasts and sticks beyond an individual rule change. I would like to see players not only boycott the Russian World Cup but also the next to really get to the heart of these problems. The 2022 World Cup has already generated worldwide dismay that Blatter’s only response to questions about homosexuality being outlawed in Qatar, was to joke that the LGBT community visiting should then simply refrain from acting on their homosexuality. While uncertain it is possible that, following the coming out of Robbie Rogers (an American international player), other international players may follow suit over the next nine years until the Qatar World Cup.
FIFA has to recognise their responsibility to players when choosing host countries to pick locations where positive environments are possible, and where hostility won’t threaten to damage the tournament, noth in relation to their responsibility to the black players taking the field in Russia and potential gay players taking the field in Qatar. Whilst I don’t think any kind of fan protest will make a huge dent in Fifa’s thinking, a player boycott like the one Toure suggests certainly could.