(CNN) — In under a year Russia will host the 2018 World Cup, arguably the world’s biggest sporting event, and all eyes will be on a country which has grappled with hooliganism and racism in recent years.
But Alexey Smertin, Russia’s anti-racism and discrimination inspector, has told CNN he can guarantee there will be no racist incidents at World Cup matches.
Asked how damaging it would be were there to be any incidents during matches, the former Chelsea midfielder 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?”
A complicated picture
The World Cup will be held from June 14 to July 15 next year.
Players and fans from 32 countries will descend on the world’s biggest country for the first World Cup to be held in Eastern Europe, but how accepting will Russia be of its visitors?
In recent years, a number of black footballers playing in Russia’s top flight have complained of repeated and persistent racism.
Data provided by researchers at Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) and Russia-based SOVA show that racist incidents continue to occur at football matches in the country, though progress has been made.
According to the report, there was a decrease in the number of racist incidents in and around stadiums during the 2016-17 season, compared with the 2015-16 football campaign.
Between June 2016 and May 2017, there were 89 reported incidents of discriminatory displays logged. In the 2015-16 season it was 101, while in 2014-15 there were 92 reported incidents.
Piara Powar, executive director of FARE, told CNN the picture for the 2018 World Cup was “very complicated.”
“We won’t predict that there will be problems as a country comes together, to be seen as a good host,” he said.
“But incidents could take place, and we could see individuals attacked and a replication of incidents seen in Russian domestic football, with black players being targeted.”
‘Racism a global issue’
Two years ago, Brazil striker Hulk, who now plays in China, said he had encountered racism “almost every game” while playing for Zenit St. Petersburg.
Zenit, in particular, has come under the spotlight in recent years. In 2012 a group of fans released a manifesto calling for non-white and gay players to be excluded from their team, a notice the club quickly distanced itself from.
In 2015, Smertin himself was criticized after saying racism in Russia did not exist.
“Racism in Russia is like fashion,” he had told the BBC. “It comes from abroad, from different countries. Ten years ago, some fans may have given a banana to black guys — it was just for fun.”
Smertin, who made 55 international appearances for Russia, told CNN he had since been learning about the issues.
“It’s a global problem,” he said. “I wouldn’t say in this case Russia is a different country, that’s why I was appointed.
“If it happens, it is individually or small groups compared to all population of Russia.
“It happens everywhere. I’ve been educating myself. I’ve been creating the team and I would like to create a public council for that — people who are influential who can help me.”
‘People don’t know that their acts hurt’
In May, at an official parade in Sochi, people in black face paint and carrying bananas paraded in the city’s streets as part of a section dedicated to the Confederations Cup — a FIFA tournament which acts as a precursor to next year’s World Cup.
Held from June 17 to July 2 in various Russian cities, the tournament is an eight-nation event involving Portugal, Germany, Russia, Mexico, Cameroon, New Zealand, Chile and Australia.
In a statement, the Sochi city government said at the time that “by no means did the carnival parade intend to insult anyone.”
Smertin described the incident as unfortunate.
“My role is to educate because some people don’t know that their acts hurt people,” he said.
“They don’t do that sometimes on purpose, but they don’t know that their acts hurt people and they need to know.”
A FIFA first at Confederations Cup
Should discriminatory incidents occur at the Confederations Cup, FIFA — football’s governing body — will use a three-step procedure for the first time at an official tournament.
Referees will have the authority to first stop the match and request a public announcement, then suspend the match until the behavior stops and, finally, if the behavior persists, abandon the match.
Anti-discrimination observers will also be deployed to all matches, while FIFA will hold its annual “Anti-Discrimination Days” during the Confederations Cup semifinals on June 28-29.
Three years ago, the Russian government’s so-called “Spectator Law” came into force, regulating behavior inside stadiums and prohibiting paraphernalia and symbols of a political, Nazi, extremist or provocative nature.
In their recent report, FARE said incidents of discrimination and displays of neo-Nazi symbolism were not limited to stadiums but “widely accepted within online fan forums, social media outlets” while organized far-right groups engaged in “violent hate crimes” outside stadiums before and after matches.
“Although the so-called ‘Spectator Law’ came into force in Russia in January 2014 regulating fan behavior inside the stadiums, there is so far little evaluation of its practical implementation,” read the report.
“The law addresses individual offenses committed inside stadiums but, given the organized nature of far-right groups, it is unlikely that the law could challenge the overall direction of travel of the Russian fan scene.”