KEIR RADNEDGE in ST PETERSBURG: Brazil striker Hulk, who criticised racist attitudes in Russian football last week, has been replaced among the personality assistants at the World Cup draw here tomorrow.

A statement issued by world federation FIFA blamed “club commitments with FC Zenit” for the need to bring in former Russia midfielder Alexey Smertin instead of Hulk.

Zenit, coached by Andre Villas-Boas, have apparently only just realised that they play in Yekaterinburg this weekend, three hours distant fron St Petersburg by air, albeit not until Sunday.

Old heroes who are confirmed as joining FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke on stage at the Konstantinovsky Palace for the draw include Brazil’s Ronaldo, Diego Forlan, Fabio Cannavaro, Samuel Eto’o, Oliver Bierhoff, Alexander Kerzhakov, Rinat Dasaev, Rabah Madjer and Predrag Rajkovic.

Hulk (full name Givanildo Vieira de Sousa), who cost Zenit a Russian record €60m from Porto in 2012, had said he faced racism including monkey chants in “almost every game” in Russia and feared for the crowd atmosphere at the World Cup finals.

Club confidential

The 28-year-old added: “If this happens in the World Cup, it will be really gross and really ugly. Usually it happens only in Russian club competition and it doesn’t come out to the world and the world doesn’t know about this.

“I see this happening at almost every game. I used to get angry, but now I see this doesn’t help so I just blow a kiss to our fans instead.”

In December, Hulk alleged he was racially abused by Russian referee Alexei Matyunin during a league game. The referee was cleared by a Russian Football Union panel, which ruled there was insufficient evidence.

The controversy over racism in Russian football escalated when Ghanaian Emmanuel Frimpong complained he was a target of racial abuse in the recent opening round of the new Russian league season while playing for FC Ufa against Spartak Moscow.

The former Arsenal player responded with a single-finger gesture to Spartak fans, was sent off and banned for two games – a punishment which infuriated his own Ghana federation and has been queried by FIFA.

Frimpong said on Twitter that he had been “racially abused for the game that I love. I’m going to serve a sentence for being abused … yet we (are) going to hold a World Cup in this country.”

Crowd conversion

Alexei Sorokin, the World Cup local organising ceo, responded that Russia was not the only country with a racism problem among fans but that the World Cup would involve a different crowd mix in any case.

Sorokin also reiterated, at a pre-World Cup draw news conference, that the decision was down to Villas-Boas.

He said: “Recently we found out the coach of Zenit had made a decision based on purely sporting reasons to withdraw this player from the draw show because Zenit have a game on Sunday in Yekaterinburg so the coach decided they needed to leave together and not leave anyone behind.”

A report earlier this year from an anti-discrimination group identified more than 200 incidents of racist and discriminatory behaviour linked to Russian football over two seasons. Russian sources have challenged the figures.

A need for greater education over the issue as well as preventative measures were pinpointed on Thursday in St Petersburg by Yuri Boychenko, who heads the anti-discrimination section of the United Nations Human Rights Office.

He told a press conference: “I believe recognition is coming. It’s a behavioural problem and a society problem. In Russia there is no clear understanding of what racism means. It’s not black and white and white and black only. It’s also about the issue of ethnicities, religious affiliation, culture, language etc.”

Zenit official statement:

Hulk: «I’d like to thank FIFA for the invitation to the Draw»
Brazilian striker on World Cup 2018 Preliminary Draw and the reasons that won [sic] allow him to be presented:
– It was a great honour both for me and the club to be invited to the Preliminary Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Every player in the world would be happy to be a part of such an important event and I’m very thankful to everyone who made it possible.
It is with a great regret that I have to inform that I will not be able to attend the Draw because of the ongoing training process and upcoming away match against FC Ural on Sunday. Long flight and time zone changes make it impossible for me to be presented.

I would like to thank everyone in the Organizing Committee of the World Cup for the invitation again. I have no doubts that ceremony in St. Petersburg will be a remarkable event for everyone in the world who have passion for the game of football.