Hulk: 'I'm sure racism doesn't exist in Russia anymore'

    Story highlights

    • Brazil striker Hulk tells CNN "racism doesn't exist" in Russia anymore
    • Former Zenit star forgives former offenders
    • Believes Russia 2018 World Cup will be "very special"

    (CNN)Two years on from saying he encountered abuse in "almost every game," former Zenit St. Petersburg striker Hulk says racism is no longer a problem in Russian football.

    "I'm sure it doesn't exist anymore," the Brazilian told CNN Sport's Amanda Davies. "It didn't happen at any stage during the Confederations Cup; I'm sure it won't happen at the World Cup."
      Asked whether the issue has been solved in Russia, Hulk responded: "Yes -- I believe so."
      The 30-year-old, who joined Chinese Super League club Shanghai SIPG for $61 million in July 2016, has previously accused opposition fans of racial abuse during high profile clashes against Spartak Moscow and FC Torpedo Moscow in 2014/15.
      Now though, he contends, "there's nothing to be worried about."
      "Unfortunately, I experienced a few cases (of racism) in Russia, especially when I arrived in my first year," said Hulk. "With time, it began improving.
      "I was getting used to Russian football. Russian people were embracing me more. So, I guess, one year before I left Zenit this wasn't happening anymore."

      'I blew kisses to them'

      André Villas-Boas, then-manager of Zenit St. Petersburg, said the monkey chants Hulk was subjected to that season were a "disaster" for the perception of Russian football around the world.
      The offending clubs were sanctioned by the Russian Football Union disciplinary committee, with Torpedo fined 300,000 roubles ($5050) and ordered to play two home matches behind closed doors.
      Even so, the player himself doesn't believe fans were setting out to be vindictive.
      "I don't think of it as malice," says Hulk. "I think it's also slightly cultural."
      Instead the Russian Premier League's top scorer in 2014/15 puts the incidents down to supporters trying to "distract" opponents, and particularly star players.
      "I paid a lot of attention to it and I got distracted from the game," he says. "That made me sad inside."
      A year on from his four seasons in St. Petersburg, the Brazilian is also quick to forgive.
      "I'm a person who doesn't hold any grudges," says Hulk. "With time, when it happened several more times, I began to relax.
      "When the supporters tried to commit acts of racism or making monkey noises, I blew kisses to the supporters. That's how I responded to them."

      'Racially abused for the game I love'

      In 2012, a group of Zenit supporters released a manifesto calling for non-white and gay players to be excluded from their team. The club was quick to distance itself from the notice, but the incident arguably highlighted a wider malaise.
      Brazil great Roberto Carlos, who joined Anzhi Makhachkala in 2011, twice had bananas brandished at him that year.
      In 2013, Manchester City's Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure was subjected to racist chants from the stands at CSKA Moscow, and voiced his disgust after the match, saying "I'm not just disappointed, I'm furious."
      In November 2014, Hulk himself alleged he was racially abused by Russian referee Alexei Matyunin during a 1-0 defeat to Mordovia Saransk.
      After Hulk's allegations against Matyunin, it was ruled that "a serious personal conflict took place," but that there was no "direct proof" of racial abuse and the referee, who reportedly had denied the accusation, was cleared of abusing the Brazilian.
      More recently, Ghanaian Emmanuel Frimpong tweeted he had been "racially abused for the game that I love" following the first match of the 2015/16 Russian season, FC Ufa vs. Spartak Moscow.
      The Ufa midfielder, who now plays for Sweden's AFC Eskilstuna, was sent off for making an offensive gesture to the crowd and subsequently slapped with a two-match ban, describing the Russian Football Union's verdict that there was no evidence of racial abuse as "beyond a joke."
      "I'm going to serve a sentence for being abused," Frimpong seethed, "and yet we are going to hold a World Cup in this country."
      Russian Premier League's security director, Alexander Meytin, said in Frimpong's case: "The video cameras did not pick up any evidence of gestures. There were no gestures aimed at the footballer."

      Russia 2018

      However, racist incidents continue to occur at football matches in the country, though marginal progress has been made, according to researchers at Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) and Russia-based SOVA.
      A recent report details 89 reported instances of discriminatory displays logged between June 2016 and May 2017, compared to 101 in the 2015-16 campaign and 92 the season before.
      Piara Powar, executive director of FARE, told CNN in June that "incidents could take place" at the World Cup, but he predicted the country would "come together, to be seen as a good host."
      Muntari, who plays for Serie A side Pescara, told CNN Sport in May he was a victim of racist abuse in Italy "every game" and felt "like a criminal" for daring to speak out.
      But he also insisted "it is a good thing that Russia is going to host the next World Cup," suggesting it would "bring people together, and peace" -- echoing the sentiment of a 2014 FIFA statement saying "history has shown that boycotting sport events ... is not the most effective ways to solve problems."
      "FIFA has done well," Muntari said, "because you can't run from your problems. You have to tackle them."
      Meanwhile, Hulk says he would welcome the chance to return if selected by Brazil head coach Tite.
      "It'll be an amazing World Cup here," he insists. "There are three Brazilians playing in China who are in the national team -- two of whom are in the Starting XI.
      "If I have the opportunity, I would welcome it with open arms to play here in Russia where I spent four very happy years. It will be very special."