Too white to win? Russia boasts one of World Cup's most ethnically diverse squads
SOCHI – Before a ball was kicked, you could have filled a book with nasty, obnoxious, mean-spirited and loathsome takes on this year’s FIFA World Cup. They ranged from predictions of Russia using chemicals to slow down England players (BBC) to British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson equating the event to the “Hitler” Olympics of 1936.
While people here laugh at this sort of plainly outrageous nonsense, other forms of deceit invoke feelings of anger. And one which seems to especially irk Russians is the false representation of alleged ethnic conformity within their side.
Two American media outlets have notably spread disinformation on the subject over the past month, Mother Jones and RFE/RL. The former’s facepalm-worthy scene-setter told us how “Russia’s national team is too Russian, which is one reason it will bomb out of the World Cup.” Meanwhile, the US state broadcaster told us last weekend how “Russia’s World Cup team bucks multi-ethnicity seen on Swiss, other teams.”
Complete nonsense. But first, let me explain Mother Jones’ theses. The writer, one Clint Hendler, appears to be slating Russia for not having enough black players. And, as a consequence, he – rather embarrassingly – believed the “Sbornaya (a term for the national side) will be defeated in the first group stage, delivering an embarrassing rebuke of the nation’s insular approach to what has long been a very global game.”
RFE/RL’s attempt to bolster the false narrative came a fortnight later, after Russia had defeated Egypt and Saudi Arabia, dashing Mother Jones’ hopes. Here we read how the squad is strikingly “bereft of non-Russian players.” And the central quoted figure is our old friend Slava Malamud, who earlier this year assured his followers that St. Petersburg’s SKA would win the KHL hockey championship because they were “[Vladimir] Putin's team, [and] this is Putin's election year.” Of course, CSKA Moscow eliminated them soon after and they, in turn, were beaten by AK Bars of Kazan in the final.
Malamud mentions how “Peter Odemwingie – the son of Nigerian immigrants who was born and raised in Russia – refused to play for Russia several years ago, opting instead to play for Nigeria.” But this isn’t accurate. Odemwingie was born in Uzbekistan when it was still a Soviet republic, before moving to Nigeria at the age of two. He attended secondary school in Russia for a period, but began his professional football career in Nigeria with Bendel Insurance. He was capped at the age of 21 – suggesting that the Super Eagles snapped him up before he ever appeared on Russia’s radar.
Incidentally, Odemwingie, who played for three seasons at Lokomotiv Moscow in his late 20s, recently stated how “racism in Russia has been exaggerated.” The player noted that supporters who travelled here for the tournament would change their opinion of the country: “In general, there’s no such problem [as racism] in Russia,” he told RIA Novosti news agency. “Many people will come to the World Cup in Russia. Their perceptions should be changed. They will communicate with people and see things as they really are.”
But don’t expect to read his views on an American news site anytime soon.
Anyway, let’s circle back to the original point about the supposedly mono-ethnic Russian World Cup squad. While Team Russia are not as multiethnic as France, Switzerland or England, they are actually one of the most diverse squads in the competition, and hardly as uniform as Japan, Iran or Senegal, to name a few.
For instance, the right-back Mario Fernandes was born in Brazil and qualified under residency rules after five years with CSKA Moscow. Meanwhile, sub-goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov and star midfielder Alan Dzagoev are Ossetians. As it happens, the team manager, Stanislav Cherchesov, is their compatriot.
Veteran center-half Sergey Ignasevich has Belarusian and Chuvash roots, while goal hero Artem Dzyuba boasts Ukrainian and Chuvash origins. Also, winger Alexander Samedov has an Azeri father. Indeed, he turned down entreaties from Baku before declaring for Russia.
Even among the Slavic Russian players, there is a tremendous geographic range. Yury Gazinsky hails from the far-eastern territory of Khabarovsk, while the Miranchuk twins, Anton and Aleksey were born and raised in the Kuban – their hometowns separated by 9,300km of road, or a nine-day train ride.
In Russia, there are almost 200 nationalities and 147 million people, but the squad can only contain 23 footballers. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say the Russian selection is broadly representative and hardly confined to ethnic Russians. In fact, the team that plays Croatia on Saturday night will be far more diverse than its opponents.
In this case, it’s pretty clear that the US outlets are analyzing Russia from a Western migration perspective. But, centuries ago, when Western European powers were raping and pillaging the global south, the Russian empire was conquering parts of Asia and the Caucasus. As a consequence, it’s hardly surprising when these historical differences are reflected on the football field.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.