For a month now, an ugly game is being played in Russia against gay and transgender people. As the World Cup is about to start—on June 14, with a match pitting Russia against Saudi Arabia—Russian hooligans have been sending a clear and threatening message to British gay and transgender soccer fans who intend to come to support the English team: they face death, violence, and persecution. They are being advised to put their passports away and stay home.
A long series of threatening emails have been reported to the British police by the LGBT Pride in Football community. The danger is a serious one, as last week the Football Supporters Federation (the English association of soccer fans), together with the British Football Association, has published a sort of guide for soccer fans travelling abroad, including a code of behavior for homosexuals, instructing them to never show their sexual orientation in public in Russia. No kissing in public, no embraces or holding hands, and no rainbow flags on display either. Those who do any of this will face enormous risks.
Russia is 48th among 49 European countries as regards the protection of LGBT rights. Lately, it has been trying to show a side that is less intolerant of gays and transgender people during the past few months, under the more or less watchful eye of FIFA. The leading soccer organization decided a few years ago—with the crucial contribution of President Sepp Blatter—to approve the bid of the Russian Federation to organize the 2018 World Cup, with the blessing of Vladimir Putin. The apparent course change by the Russian government has had little effect.
Meanwhile, FIFA, aware of the risks, had also announced the production of a mini-“guide” to avoid incidents of anti-gay violence.
In an interview with The Independent, Alexander Agapov, head of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, who has himself suffered violence and discrimination on many occasions, reminded the British public of the widespread intolerance that is found throughout Russian soccer, both at the national and regional levels, and that the danger of recurring violent homophobic incidents is very real, despite the fact that ultra-conservative voices have softened their public stance in recent weeks as the World Cup draws nearer.
Homophobia in Russian soccer is a phenomenon with a long history, but after the adoption of an anti-gay law by the Duma five years ago, the number of crimes motivated by intolerance has doubled, and several surveys are showing a growing intolerance towards the LGBT community.
For a taste of what awaits gay soccer fans in Russia, one need only search for the videos of the “trial runs” posted online by Russian hooligans: veritable courses in violence, physical preparations for battle, and military-style training with “boot camps” set up for this purpose, with dozens of young men recruited through social networks. This is “Operation World Cup.” The message is clear: “They better go work out and get ready for a fight.”
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