MOSCOW — Former Chelsea midfielder Alexei Smertin has been put in charge of investigating soccer racism in Russia, despite previously appearing to deny it existed.
Smertin said his new role as the Russian Football Union’s anti-racism and discrimination inspector means he will "put every effort into keeping racism and discrimination out of the story of football in my country."
"Ahead of the 2017 Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup, Russia, as a country hosting such big international tournaments, should be an example of global tolerance both on and off the football field," Smertin said Tuesday in a statement on the RFU website. "And we will definitely show that."
The former Russia international, who is also an ambassador for the World Cup, was criticized in 2015 for comments made to the BBC, when he played down the significance of racism in Russian soccer.
"There’s no racism in Russia, definitely, because you know it does not exist," he told the British broadcaster. "It’s just like a fashion. It comes from abroad, from different countries."
Smertin told the BBC some Russian fans had taunted black players with bananas "just for fun" and that racist chants were meant by Russian fans to distract black players on the opposing side, rather than as personal abuse.
Smertin’s new job is a high-profile role ahead of next year’s World Cup, which is under scrutiny over violence involving Russian fans at last year’s European Championship and a rise in the number of racist incidents at domestic games.
Campaign group FARE reported 92 incidents of discriminatory displays and chants by Russian fans in and around stadiums during the 2014-15 season, the last for which figures are available. FARE said there were 83 incidents in the previous two seasons combined.