By Samindra Kunti in Zurich
March 5 – Russia 2018 anti-discrimination chief Alexey Smertin has reiterated that LGBT fans will be welcome at the World Cup this summer. Rainbow flags will be allowed to fly at stadiums during the tournament.
“Rainbow flags won’t be prohibited,” said Smertin, talking at FIFA’s Equality and Inclusion Conference. “Showing feelings, like kissing, holding hands, won’t be prohibited. It’s not beyond the line. I can’t see any issue to come to Russia and support your team.”
“This is the game of equality,” said Smertin.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, but homophobic sentiment remains strong. The country has a law banning teaching about homosexuality in schools. Last year former Chelsea midfielder Alexei Smertin was appointed as an anti-racism and discrimination inspector at the Russian FA and the local organising committee.
When asked about rainbow flags and gay outings of affection Smertin was adamant that it’d not be a problem. “I can’t see any issue,” he repeated.
“Last year we had the Confederations Cup,” highlighted Smertin. “How many incidents occurred? None. So that is a good indicator, so definitely the World Cup will be the same.”
“Last year we had the friendly between Russia and Iran,” added Smertin. “Before the game we organised a friendly between Shunni and Shiites, completely different directions in Islam. This is a good example.”
FIFA’s Federico Addiechi, the organisation’s head of diversity and sustainability, was quick to offer reassurances. “There is no doubt from the assurances we get from the Russian authorities, from the local organising committee that all the measures are in place to make sure that the World Cup is going to be an inclusive one,” said Addiechi. He emphasised that measures are in place to deal with potential troublemakers.
In the audience, Aleksandr Agapov, the president of Russia’s LGBT sports federation, wasn’t as optimistic. He questioned the longevity of Russia’s softer stance towards gays, saying that ‘routine life would return after the World Cup.’
Agapov also criticised FIFA for allowing Egypt to pick its base camp in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has been accused of persecuting gay people and disrespecting human rights.
At the start of the conference Agapov had asked if FIFA would support gay football projects in Russia, but the governing body offered no response. Agapov previously received an informal communication from Adidas in response to a similar request that the German company would not support such projects.
Later Addiechi responded that “we [FIFA] have engagements with LGBT communities, not just in Russia, but around the world.”
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