African and Asian migrants have staged their own version of the World Cup in Russia

While billions of people around the world are cheering on their national teams as they compete for the biggest prize in international football, some are using this platform to draw attention to issues about migration even as European leaders are under mounting pressure to come up with a solution to Europe’s migration crisis. 

The FIFA World Cup tournament in Russia is in full-swing, featuring quite a number of migrant players. And yet, while their achievements on the pitch are greatly celebrated, off the pitch (or sometimes even on) migrant footballers can suffer extreme racism.

Migrants from Africa and Asia staged their own version of the World Cup in Moscow on 2 July, playing soccer matches in Red Square in an event held to highlight challenges faced by refugees in Russia, according to a Reuters report.

Organised by anti-discrimination network FARE and the Civic Assistance Committee which helps migrants and refugees, the tournament involved players from Ivory Coast, Congo and Nigeria who played alongside migrants from countries like Syria and Afghanistan. In all, 35 players from 15 countries featured in a series of matches in a FIFA-designated Football Park by the Kremlin walls. 

“This event is to draw attention to the problems of discrimination, xenophobia,” said Svetlana Gannushkina, an advocate for migrant rights and head of the Civic Assistance Committee.

“For us it is also to show the authorities that there are these great guys and they should be given (formal refugee) status,” she said to Reuters, adding that the players had not successfully managed to obtain such status despite applying.

While only 11 players represent the team on the field at any one time, a national football squad can encompass 40 or more. Almost one in ten players in the World Cup were born outside of their country. 

Morocco has the highest proportion of foreign-born players, with 61.5% of players born abroad. Senegal’s team contains 39.4% of players born abroad, and Portugal fielded 32.1% foreign-born players. Egyptian-born player Mohamed Salah whose last minute goal helped send Egypt to the World Cup in Russia also plays in a foreign league. In May, Salah secured the Premier League Golden Boot for 2017-18 after finishing the season with 32 goals from his 36 appearances.

Russia has made efforts during the World Cup to show it is open and does not tolerate discrimination or xenophobia. Despite fears the tournament could be tarnished by racism, no major incident has been reported.