In September, Alexei Smertin made a bold statement.
“There’s no racism in Russia, because it does not exist,” Smertin, a former captain of Russia’s national soccer team and an ambassador for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, told the BBC’s “World Football” program.
He didn’t stop there:
Smertin went on to dismiss behaviour that many might consider racist as “fun”.
“Racism in Russia is like fashion. It comes from abroad, from different countries,” he said.
“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.”
But a study by two anti-discrimination groups found that not only is there a stunning amount of racism in Russian soccer, it’s worse that ever only two-plus years before the country hosts the World Cup, which will feature at least four and possibly five teams from Africa plus a growing number of black players on teams from other continents.
Researchers from the Moscow-based SOVA Center and the UEFA-affiliated FARE Network logged 92 incidents of discriminatory displays and chants by Russian fans in and around stadiums in the 2014-15 season, against a total of 83 for the previous two seasons put together.
At the World Cup, “there will be incidents inside stadiums, around stadiums. The question will be how frequently they occur, how serious they are,” FARE executive director Piara Powar tells The Associated Press.
“Given the closeness to the World Cup, we’re now talking about a situation where we are trying to minimize those incidents rather than eradicate them altogether.”
Black people were increasingly targeted by Russian fans last season. The report identified 10 cases of abuse of black people or players, compared to five in the previous two seasons. In July, Zenit St. Petersburg striker Hulk, who is black, said he faced racist abuse in “almost every game” in Russia.
Smertin’s comments were merely one salvo in Russia’s ongoing war to play down its inherent racism, which officials there do even when talking about how they’re attacking the problem. Alexei Tolkachev, Russian soccer’s so-called “antiracism inspector,” told the New York Times’ Sam Borden in November that “we in Russia take this problem very seriously.”
But moments later, he said this: “We don’t consider it as a serious problem.”
And so the problem grows.