Alexey Smertin once denied the existence of racism in Russia but now the former national team captain and Chelsea midfielder is in charge of tackling the problem as the World Cup looms.
Back in 2015 Smertin told the BBC that “there’s no racism in Russia, definitely, because, you know, it doesn’t exist” as the country marked 1,000 days to the tournament that kicks off in June 2018.
But this February the long-haired ex-player was chosen to spearhead the campaign to crack down on the sort of racial abuse that has seen ethnic minority players regularly targeted in the country.
His appointment as the Russia Football Union’s anti-racism inspector raised some eyebrows as critics argued that once again it showed the authorities were not serious about tackling the issue.
Now, with one year to go to the World Cup and a few days to the warm-up Confederations Cup, Smertin appears to have changed his tune slightly — even if he remains sure racism won’t be a problem.
“The fact of the existence of racism around the world is obvious but it’s not only Russia’s problem,” Smertin, 42, told AFP. “Russia is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country where different people have got along for ages, and I’m confident that no incidents of racism will take place here during the Confederations and the World Cups.”
Despite his earlier statement, Smertin insists that his background playing in top-flight clubs abroad and high profile as Russia’s former captain make him the right person for the job.
The workhorse player won the 2005 English Premier League with Chelsea alongside stars like Didier Drogba, and also turned out for teams including Fulham and Bordeaux. Between 1996 and 2006 he won 55 caps with Russia.
“The experience of playing in the multi-national and multi-racial teams had a very positive impact on me,” he said. “Meanwhile, my devotion to football and sometimes self-sacrifice on the pitch helped me to win the respect of my colleagues and the supporters.”
Smertin remained vague on what exactly his job entails but said a major focus was reaching out to supporters of all ages to try to change attitudes.
“Our job is to educate football fans,” he said. “The youth is our primary audience as we hope to raise a younger generation with a genuine love and true respect for the game.”
Russia’s image has been tarnished by repeated high-profile incidents of abuse against ethnic minority players in recent years and those in charge have often been accused of downplaying the issue.
Fears of broader fan violence also spiralled after brutal clashes between Russian and English football fans at the Euro 2016 championship in France.
But Smertin insists those worries are exaggerated and pointed to examples like Rostov hosting Manchester United in the Europa League this season as proof foreign fans have nothing to fear.
“The British media warned Manchester United supporters that they should beware of the Russians and keep alert,” he said. “But in Rostov locals brought blankets to the stands of their venue to protect the visiting fans from the frosty weather during the match.
“The majority of football lovers respect their club rivals and their supporters,” Smertin said. “But a small proportion of fans choose such a wrong-headed method of expressing themselves that spoils the positive background to the game.”