Pride and Prejudice: Cameroon Soccer Star Samuel Eto’o Set to Play (and Live) in Russia

Earlier this summer, we reported a racist incident in Russian soccer: the Brazilian star Robert Carlos stormed off the pitch when a banana was thrown at him by hostile fans. This week, Roberto Carlos’s club Anzhi Makhachkala is prepared to make history by signing the 30-year-old Cameroonian superstar Samuel Eto’o, who has earned acclaim playing for FC Barcelona in Spain and Inter Milan in Italy. Eto’o has also been named the African player of the year four times—a record number. When the transfer goes through on Wednesday, Eto’o will become the highest-paid soccer star on the planet, with a reported salary of $28 million dollars. His previous club, Inter Milan, will receive a transfer fee in the neighborhood of $40 million. Samuel Eto’o is known for his heart as much as goal-scoring abilities. In Africa, La Foundation Eto’o works in support of youth-oriented programs for education, integration, and sports. The foundation was also reported to being close to joining a movement to promote the struggle against racism in sports. The arrival of Eto’o in Russia is a landmark moment for the country that has already begun preparing to host the 2018 World Cup. The Russian Soccer League and fans have never seen a foreign player of this magnitude. The league’s officials must be prepared to address the racist incidents and rhetoric that tainted Roberto Carlos’s experience in Russia. This can be done by continuous speaking out against racist rhetoric, investigating all incidents in the stands, and reaching out to fans and players and jointly organizing events promoting inclusion and tolerance in sports. Russia’s government also needs to improve its work on combating racist and xenophobic violence, which has claimed the lives of many persons of African origin during the last decade. While Samuel Eto’o may live luxuriously in Moscow and be shielded from the realities of modern Russia, many of his fellow African residents—students, businessmen, laborers—live on the outskirts, take public transport, and eat at small stolovaya cafes. And may be closely watched by skinhead gangs. Although Russian neo-Nazis prefer to target Central Asian laborers (because there are many of them in major cities and they are more socially vulnerable than any other victim group), there have been many cases of attacks against blacks and Africans, too. Recent examples can be found in the reporting by the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis:

  • On August 16, 2011, a 33-year-old Kenyan citizen was severely beaten in Saint Petersburg. He suffered a concussion, a broken skull, and a knife wound on his thigh.
  • On July 23, 2011, two dark-skinned youths were beaten in Nizhny Novgorod by as many as eight football fans from Moscow. The attack occurred in broad daylight, on a downtown street.
  • On July 5, 2011, a citizen of Côte d’Ivoire was brutally beaten by three attackers, who then dragged his body to a nearby forest.
  • On May 2, 2011, a 28-year-old African post-grad medical student beaten in a Moscow bar. The victim suffered a concussion.
  • On On April 10, 2011, three young men attacked a citizen of Cameroon, who suffered a knife wound, near a subway station in north Moscow.

Alarmingly, the perpetrators are still at-large in these and many other cases. In Moscow alone, dozens of Africans are victimized by racist violence every year. A 2009 study by the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy found that nearly 60% of black and African people from Moscow have been physically assaulted in racially motivated attacks. Almost all of the respondents have been racially abused. That was an improvement (!) over the numbers reported in 2002. Samuel Eto’o can symbolically help confronting racism and discrimination in Russia, where he’ll remain under contract for at least three years. However, the substance of this work should come from the authorities. As soccer officials work with stars to confront racist stadium chants, the Russian government must be prepared to address the violence that minorities can experience in the streets. There are clear signs that the government is starting to take the problem seriously. Better police work and more court prosecutions of murderers brought results: the number of murders has gone down considerably in 2010 and 2011. However, the improvements are negated by the lack a comprehensive policy to address hate crime, manifested by poor police training, uneven high-level political rhetoric, and weak popular initiatives. These problems must be addressed, if Russia is to surprise the world by its embrace of tolerance and nondiscrimination in 2018. It appears that both Samuel Eto’o and the Russian government have their work cut out for them. Read more: Human Rights First’s work on hate crime in Russia. Reactions? Join us on twitter: @0discrimination.

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Published on August 23, 2011

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