Russia’s anti-racism and discrimination inspector has boldly guaranteed that there will be no incidences of racial abuse at next year’s World Cup.
Alexey Smertin, the former Chelsea and Fulham midfielder now in charge of combatting racism in Russian football, told CNN that despite the recurrence of racist incidents in the country’s domestic leagues, he expects the tournament will be at the “best level ever seen”.
When asked how damaging a racist incident at the 2018 World Cup would be, Smertin said: “It won’t be. I can guarantee. The people who know me, they know how honest I was on the pitch. Why should I lie?”
Smertin went on to deny that Russia had a specific issue with racism in football, describing it as a “global problem”.
“I wouldn’t say in this case Russia is a different country, that’s why I was appointed,” he added. “If it happens, it is individually or small groups compared to all population of Russia.”
According to Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), Russia has made progress in combatting racism in football over the last year.
The total number of racist incidents in Russian football declined during the 2016/17 season, with 89 reported incidences compared to 101 in the previous campaign.
In May, organisers of a parade in Sochi celebrating the World Cup’s pre-cursor tournament, the Confederations Cup, were criticised after several participants were pictured wearing black face and carrying bananas.
Smertin echoed Sochi’s city government by claiming the participants did not intend to offend, telling CNN: “My role is to educate because some people don’t know that their acts hurt people.
“They don’t do that sometimes on purpose, but they don’t know that their acts hurt people and they need to know.”
In an interview with the BBC’s World Football programme, Smertin dismissed concerns that racism could mar the 2018 World Cup, claiming: “There’s no racism in Russia, because it doesn’t exist. It is something against the opposition, not against a person.
“Racism in Russia is like fashion,” he added. “It comes from abroad, from different countries. It was never, ever here before.
“Ten years ago, some fans may have given a banana to black guys – it was just for fun. I think the media is making the wrong image of Russia.”