Racism And Remote Venues Mar Russia’s World Cup Bid
Haminu Draman thinks African teams might find it hard to play in a World Cup in Russia due to racism
In a beautiful stretch of forest on the outskirts of Moscow where many wealthy Russians have their dachas, lies the training ground of one of the country's top football clubs, Lokomotiv.
The green turf of the pitch stands out from the hard, frozen ground surrounding it.
The club's press officer is nervous about letting us in to watch the team practice ahead of its last premier league match of the season.
It's a crucial time, just before Fifa's announcement about who will host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Russia, which has not held the tournament before, is viewed as a leading contender for 2018, with British bookmakers making it the favourite – ahead of England and the joint bid of Spain and Portugal.
Russia's footballing community is now collectively holding its breath and wants only positive news to appear in the media.
But we're here because of a serious concern about racism.
Lokomotiv was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons in August when fans put up a banner with a picture of a banana on it, “thanking” the English club West Bromwich Albion for buying the Nigerian player Peter Odemwingie.
We have all the resources it takes to organise it very well and it will certainly leave a lasting legacy in a huge country – and in many neighbouring countries as well.'
Head of Russian World Cup bid
Today Lokomotiv still has plenty of foreign players in its squad including Haminu Draman from Ghana.
At the end of the training session, he described what it was like being a black player in Russia.
“If you play against some clubs that don't have blacks in their team, especially in St Petersburg, it's crazy,” he said.
“If you are black certain things happen…..I'm ok, I just play my game, I am not listening to these people.”
After the verbal racial abuse he says he's suffered over the past three years, he's concerned about Fifa letting Russia host the World Cup.
“Some people will not like it because of the racism in Russia and I hope everyone knows about it.”
“I think if the other countries like Africa qualify for the World Cup when it's hosted by Russia, I think it's going to be hard for them too, unless these kind of things change here.”
Racism is deeply engrained in this country, with one football expert describing how black people would be “looked on with curiosity like wild animals” in areas where they've not been seen before.
But the head of the Russian bid committee, Alexei Sorokin, insists change is already underway after the Russian football union adopted a substantial anti-racism programme.
“We will gradually cope with this problem, we don't see any problem with that.”
Fifa has raised concerns about the huge distances between Saransk and other potential host cities
That Russia is fully committed to hosting the World Cup is beyond doubt.
It has drawn up an ambitious plan to transform the football facilities in 13 cities in the western part of the country.
Most of the stadiums will be built from scratch with work already underway on several of them.
There are also plans to upgrade airports, build high-speed rail links and new hotels.
The basic price tag is $6bn (£3.9bn).
The idea is to accelerate development outside the country's two main cities, Moscow and St Petersburg.
“We have immense government support,” says Mr Sorokin.
“We have all the resources it takes to organise it very well and it will certainly leave a lasting legacy in a huge country – and in many neighbouring countries as well.”
Cities which are right off the beaten track in what is already a largely unknown country could be hosting tens of thousands of football fans and VIPs in eight years' time.
Russia wants to revamp football facilities in 13 cities for the tournament
Saransk, the provincial capital of the autonomous region of Mordovia more than 600km east of Moscow, is one of them.
It's so remote that there is just one flight a day from the capital on an old propeller plane, which arrives in the evening and returns the following morning.
It is best known as a centre of the Gulag prison system in Soviet days and for producing power-walking champions.
But now there is a new buzz about the place.
They've started work on a 44,000-seat world-class football stadium and have many other plans.
“By 2012 we will completely revamp our transport infrastructure,” says the mayor of Saransk, Vladimir Sushkov.
“We will rebuild the airport, build a chain of hotels, a new bus station and create conditions for hosting a large number of visitors.”
They want this work completed by 2012 because the region will then be celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of its merger with Russia.
But it's also being done with an eye to 2018 and the World Cup.
Saransk is to get a new stadium, hotels and a revamped airport
Even the drinking habits of footballs fans are being taken into consideration.
“There are kiosks selling beer in all squares, parks and boulevards, pretty much anywhere,” says the head of the region, Nikolay Merkushkin.
“Beer has become so accessible that consumption rises by 50 to 70% each year.”
That may be music to the ears of thirsty football fans, but Fifa has raised concerns that the host cities including Saransk are too spread out, forcing fans to fly to most venues, which could be very time-consuming.
But Russian officials dismiss this, saying the distances are similar to previous World Cups.
“We don't have any (host) cities in Siberia or behind the Ural mountains,” said Mr Sorokin.
The Russians are quietly optimistic they will host the 2018 World Cup.
There would be big advantages for Fifa, opening up a whole new region.
A tempting proposition.