MOSCOW (Reuters) - Soccer fans worried about racism or homophobia should travel to Russia for the World Cup, but take precautions because the host country is a “difficult environment”, the head of the European anti-racism watchdog FARE said on Tuesday.
The Russian Football Union’s anti-discrimination inspector has said the World Cup is a chance for Russia to show how open it is.
Yet continuing cases of racist abuse in stadiums in the run-up to the tournament have put observers on alert.
“I think it is a difficult environment but the World Cup we are sure will pass peacefully, we hope,” Piara Powar, the executive director of the FARE anti-discrimination network, told Reuters in an interview in Moscow.
Russia pledged to crack down on racism ahead of the World Cup, which kicks off in Moscow on Thursday with an opening ceremony followed by a match between the hosts and Saudi Arabia.
Incidents at matches, however, have continued.
Russia was fined last month after racist abuse was directed at French players during a friendly in March in St Petersburg, which is one of the World Cup’s 11 host cities.
In April, fans with Russian premier league club CSKA Moscow chanted racist abuse at Arsenal’s black players several times during a Europa League match, according to a Reuters witness.
UEFA, the governing body for European soccer, said no racist behavior had been reported to it by match officials at that game.
Powar said Russian football clubs and the Russian Football Union have taken their anti-discrimination work more seriously ahead of the World Cup. He praised work carried out in the last year by Alexei Smertin, the Russian Football Union’s anti-discrimination inspector.
“We’ve seen if not a reality change, then a better understanding and them beginning to meet the challenges that have been laid before them,” Powar said.
“The spirit of openness, we hope, will prevail but at the same time: take precautions. Understand that the LGBT community are not accepted in the same way as they are in many Western European countries or in many parts of the global North,” he said.
In April, Smertin said the World Cup is an opportunity for Russia to show how open it is.
“This is first of all a possibility to prove how friendly and organized we actually are... We can show how we treat everyone equally because football is - as I said - a unifying instrument.”
Powar said he had been disappointed after Egypt and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah was this week photographed with Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the southern Russian region of Chechnya where the Egyptian national team is based for the World Cup.
Kadyrov and his allies have been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including torturing and abducting homosexual men, allegations Chechen authorities have denied.
By being pictured with Kadyrov, Salah — whether knowingly or not — endorsed the Chechen leadership, said Powar.
“I think it will not overshadow the World Cup, but it’s something that stands already a couple of days before kickoff as an unsavory incident,” said Powar.
Reporting by Polina Ivanova; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Toby Davis