MOSCOW: Migrants from Africa and Asia staged their own version of the World Cup in Moscow on Tuesday, playing soccer matches in Red Square in an event held to highlight challenges faced by refugees in Russia.
The games were organised by anti-discrimination network FARE and the Civic Assistance Committee, which helps migrants and refugees.
Players from Syria, Afghanistan and African countries including Ivory Coast, Congo and Nigeria took part in a series of matches in a FIFA-designated Football Park by the Kremlin walls.
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.
Alexei Smertin, the Russian Football Union's anti-discrimination inspector, attended and played in the first game.
Immigrants in Russia, particularly from Central Asia, can be targeted for spot document checks by police or suffer racial discrimination. It is difficult for asylum-seekers to obtain refugee status, rights workers say.
"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, adding that the players had not successfully managed to obtain such status despite applying.
Traoere Kadjale, 27, from Ivory Coast, said he was delighted to play soccer in the centre of Moscow.
"It's really fun for us, it brings us joy. So we are asking Russia to give us an opportunity. Football players like us, who are here, we can also express ourselves," he said.
(Additional reporting by Michaela Cabrera and Mikhail Antonov, Writing by Tom Balmforth, Editing by Angus MacSwan)