Russia successfully hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup answered all the questions about the country’s hospitality, former international Alexey Smertin said on Monday. “The impression that every one had of the country after the World Cup was at a high level, that is why as a result we were highly estimated by FIFA for our joint work,” Smertin, 2005 Premier League winner with Chelsea and former national captain, told The Indian Express at the sidelines of the International Children’s Games in Ufa. “And to my mind, no one has any more questions towards Russia if it’s a football country or if it’s a hospitable country. We are happy to see everyone without exceptions.”
Russia’s selection for hosting football’s biggest tournament was beset with questions and scrutiny over alleged racial and homophobic discrimination in football, with former FIFA vice-president Jeffrey Webb saying in 2015, “We can’t have a World Cup there under the current conditions. Russia poses a huge challenge for FIFA and the World Cup from a racism standpoint.”
But glowing reviews from a million attendees and FIFA itself led Russia President Vladimir Putin to be “thrilled that our guests saw everything with their eyes, and that myths and prejudice collapsed.”
Smertin, who was appointed as the anti-racism and discrimination inspector weeks ahead of the tournament and serves as director of regional policies and international relations, said, “When one and a half years ago I was offered the position, I knew it meant being responsible. Not only for myself but for all those who you can’t be responsible for, like the fans. It’s not a football team where you are all one, and work as a mechanism when the goals and tasks are the same. There were stereotypes about our country and because of propaganda, unfortunately, not all fans could come and cheer for their national teams, but those who did were very pleased. It’s great that the Organizing committee, the law enforcement, the fans were appropriate.”
Smertin now wants to carry the work and mechanism into next year’s Euro championships, with St. Petersburg serving as one of the 12 host cities.
“Again, Saint Petersburg represents Russia. I think we will keep going in this direction using our experience from the World Cup. It is a smaller event, yes, but still of a very high level.”
Smertin also participated in Saturday’s Football For Friendship match, an initiative by Russian gas company Gazprom. Before the match, he monitored an hour-long training session for children from various nationalities, conducting drills which “Jose Mourinho made us do at Chelsea.”
“My visits to Ufa before were all as a professional footballer,” said the 44-year-old, who also played for clubs such as Bordeaux, Dynamo Moscow and Fulham. “Today, we made passes and called each other’s names. By doing so, we got acquainted with each other and became friends. Not everybody is from Russia or speaks Russian. But football is the international language for us.”
Gazprom’s Football for Friendship has attracted more than 800 participants from Asia, Europe, Africa and America. Ananya Kamboj from Mohali, represents India as the programme’s young ambassador.
Kamboj has been a part of the programme for the last three years and was in Ufa as a young journalist. “This entire journey has been fascinating. Now it has gone from St Petersburg to Ufa,” Ananya, who has written a book titled ‘My Journey from Mohali to St Petersburg, said at the press conference. “The Nine Values promoted by Football for Friendship programme are so important – they encourage children to develop both on a football field and in life. That has changed my life.”
(This correspondent was in Ufa on the invitation of Gazprom)