SAMARA, Russia: Senegalese computer scientist Alioune Ndiaye's fears that he might face racist abuse at the soccer World Cup in Russia have not materialised. Nor have other foreign fans` fears.
Midway through the month-long tournament, no major racist incidents have been reported among players and fans despite concerns in the run-up that the World Cup could be tarnished by racism.
International rights groups that sounded the alarm over a series of racist incidents at soccer matches in the months preceding the tournament have said that the World Cup experience in Russia has so far been generally positive. "What I found in Russia is very different to what they told me before coming here," Ndiaye, the Senegalese fan, said outside the stadium in the city of Samara, where his country`s side lost 1-0 to Colombia on Thursday.
"When I told people `I am going to Russia` ... they said `Oh, no, be careful` and stuff like that. But people in Russia are very welcoming, very kind and I don`t see anything like racism here."
Russia had pledged to host a safe and secure World Cup in 11 cities, including for visible minorities. But racist incidents at matches between Russian Premier League clubs and at an international friendly earlier this year fuelled concern that players and fans could be subjected to abuse.
CSKA Moscow fans chanted racist abuse at Arsenal`s black players several times during a Europa League match in April in Moscow, while FIFA, soccer`s global governing body, fined Russia one month before the World Cup for racist abuse directed at French players during the friendly in March.
But at the World Cup, fans and rights groups say the mood is different. "We are all together with them," said Senegalese fan Bigue Thombane of Russian fans as she banged on a drum outside the stadium in Samara. "There is nothing. No racism at all. Truly."
Piara Powar, the head of the FARE network, an organisation that monitors discrimination in European soccer, said it had not recorded a single significant incident involving Russian far-right hooligans or any racist incidents involving Russian fans.
"There has been nothing on a major scale and nothing from Russians," Powar said. "That was one of the concerns of course coming into the tournament. So that`s all good news from our point of view."
THE WORLD IS WATCHING
Referees at the World Cup have the power to stop, suspend or abandon a match in the event of discriminatory incidents. They have not done this so far in the tournament. But the absence of major racist incidents does not mean that the group stage of the World Cup has been without problems related to discrimination.
FIFA fined Mexico for homophobic chants by their fans. Denmark was fined for a sexist banner, and some women at the tournament have been targeted by discriminatory behaviour. Poland and Serbia were also fined for "political and offensive" banners displayed by their fans.
Powar said that the absence of racist incidents did not come as a major surprise given Russia`s and citizens` efforts to project a positive image of the country to foreign guests. "We know that during the World Cup period, the population sort of understand that they are in the spotlight," Powar said. "The world is watching."
Alexei Smertin, the Russian Football Union`s anti-discrimination inspector, said Russia had received positive feedback from visiting teams, fans and officials. "Before the World Cup, there were a lot of fears on the part of foreign media, and we`re glad that after arriving here all the negative stereotypes were destroyed, everyone saw the diversity of Russia and our hospitality," he said.
With the knockout stage beginning on Saturday, fans from the 16 remaining teams are eager for the tournament to remain racism-free. "They see us around and they ask whether we need anything," said Colombian fan Hernan Garcia. "No racism at all so far. It has been an amazing experience."