2018 World Cup: Racism 'does not exist' in Russia - Alexei Smertin
Racism "does not exist" in 2018 World Cup host nation Russia, says former national captain Alexei Smertin.
Earlier this year, football anti-discrimination group Fare documented over 100 incidents of racist and discriminatory behaviour linked to Russian football over two seasons.
"There's no racism in Russia, because it does not exist," Smertin told the BBC's World Football programme.
On Friday, Russia marks 1,000 days until the start of the World Cup.
Smertin, an ambassador for his country's successful World Cup bid, claims that fans abuse players because of who they play for - not their skin colour.
"It is something against the opposition, not against a person," said the former Chelsea and Portsmouth midfielder.
Capped 55 times by Russia, Smertin said he did not think such incidents would arise should the 2018 hosts face a side featuring black players at the next World Cup.
He claimed that racism was a recent import from overseas despite simultaneously explaining that incidents had happened in the past.
Smertin went on to dismiss behaviour that many might consider racist as "fun".
"Racism in Russia is like fashion. It comes from abroad, from different countries," he said.
"It was never, ever here before. Ten years ago, some fans may have given a banana to black guys - it was just for fun.
"I think the media is making the wrong image of Russia."
Former Cameroon international Andre Bikey, who played in Russia from 2005 to 2006, took umbrage at Smertin's comments.
"He says there is no racism in Russia. Racism is everywhere," said the former Lokomotiv Moscow defender.
"It happened to me, it happened to my team-mates - we have to fight against it, especially with the World Cup going there in three years' time."
Bikey carried a gun for his personal safety while in Russia, following an incident when he was physically attacked by "six or seven" people on the streets of Moscow.
"It's not something I really like to talk about, and the last time a journalist called me to talk about it, I didn't," he told BBC Sport.
"Speaking about it is not good for me, and not good for Russia.
"At my club and with my team-mates, everything was OK but when you went to play another team, in a city where they've never seen a black player, it was a little bit difficult."
Brazil international Hulk, who plays for Zenit St Petersburg, has said racism happens at "almost every game" in the Russian league and that it presents a genuine threat to the 2018 World Cup.
"We quite naturally acknowledge the problem that clearly does not exist only in Russia, but many other countries," said 2018 World Cup chief executive officer Alexei Sorokin in response.
In the first game of the Russian season, Ghanaian midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong earned a red card after reacting to what he said was racial abuse.
The incident, one of several to affect the Russian game in recent years, is being investigated by Fifa.