As of this morning, Hulk, the Brazilian star of the Russian Premier League, will not attend tomorrow's World Cup qualifying draw in Moscow. This might not sound newsworthy, and it wouldn't be, had the reason for Hulk's absence not been so shady.
On Monday, Hulk addressed the widespread racism he regularly deals with while playing in Russia: "If [racism] happens in the World Cup, it will be really gross and really ugly. Usually it happens when Russian clubs play and it doesn't come out to the world and the world doesn't know about this."
FIFA says it has replaced Hulk due to club commitments, but the timing of it all makes you wonder. Just last week, Emmanuel Frimpong, a midfielder for FC Ufa and the Ghanaian national team, flipped off and cursed at a group of fans who were heard making monkey chants at the player. Frimpong later tweeted a video of the incident.
Incredibly, the Russian Football Federation suspended Frimpong for his obscene reaction but didn't take any other action. "There were no instances of racism," Artur Grigoryants, the head of the FA's disciplinary committee, said after the supposed review. "We have no grounds to take disciplinary sanctions against [FC Ufa's opponent] Spartak. Frimpong has been banned for two games for the offensive gesture he displayed towards the stands."
FIFA has since written to the Russian FA wondering how they arrived at the decision to sanction Frimpong rather than the fans, whose chants are clearly audible in footage of the incident.
That racism is rampant in Russian football is a kind of open secret. As the AP reports, "football anti-discrimination group FARE documented more than 200 incidents of racist and discriminatory behavior linked to Russian football over two seasons." None of which bodes well for the 2018 World Cup. The AP also caught up with Yuri Boychenko, who runs an anti-discrimination unit at the UN.
In a news conference about the incident, Boychenko argued that the idea of racism in Russia doesn't really exist, before noting the problem is in fact more about prejudice in general than it is race specifically. "It is not black and white only, racism and racial discrimination is about the issue of ethnicities, religious affiliation, culture and language."
As things stand, three other non-ethnic Russian, current-and-former soccer stars—Ronaldo, Fabio Cannavaro and Samuel Eto'o—are set to lend their star power to the draw on Saturday.