29-year-old Brazilian striker has faced frequent racism that has marred the Russian game
MOSCOW: After facing down racism from the stands, Brazilian striker Hulk has seen his career at Zenit St Petersburg take off as his goalscoring exploits have led to an international recall back home.
Last season’s Russian Premier League top scorer was named Zenit’s player of the month for September and was called up by Brazil national team coach Dunga for the first time since the 2014 World Cup.
But the 29-year-old is known not only for his achievements on the pitch but also for his uncompromising struggle against the frequent racism that has marred the Russian game.
Read: Zenit forward Hulk accuses Spartak fans of racism
Hulk joined Zenit from Portuguese giants Porto in September 2012 in a deal worth a reported 60 million euros ($82 million).
The record breaking transfer in Russia raised eyebrows and made Hulk the focus for racist abuse from fans.
Within half a year of his arrival he was already slamming the racist and homophobic elements among Russian supporters.
“I think those people, those fans do not care about culture at all. I respect footballers of any skin colour and any sexual orientation,” he said in an interview with R-Sport news agency.
“Those fans who abuse people of a different colour or gays just do not think at all.”
Read: Hulk slams ‘disgraceful’ racism, fears for 2018 Russia World Cup
Despite the criticism, the racism continued and in October 2014 Spartak Moscow were ordered to play a game behind closed doors after a section of fans targeted Hulk with monkey chants.
Just two months later Hulk was at the centre of another race row after he accused referee Alexei Matyunin of racially abusing him during a Premier League match.
“I don’t like you, along with any other black people,” Hulk quoted the referee as saying in an interview with the local press.
However Matyunin, who reportedly does not speak English, vociferously denied the allegations as “lies or nonsense” and an official investigation into the incident found no evidence to support Hulk’s accusations.
Instead an official at Russia’s Football Union — which has repeatedly been accused of downplaying racism in the past — said that an analysis of video footage from the game showed Hulk had provoked the referee.
The racism that he has battled in Russia has led Hulk to voice concern over the World Cup that the country will host in 2018.
Read: Russian beauty queen exposed as neo-Nazi
“Racism can happen anywhere, in everyday life as well, but it’s always very sad, it shouldn’t happen,” Hulk told the press after FC Ufa’s Ghanaian midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong was sent off after reacting to racist abuse in the first match of the season.
“If this happens during the 2018 World Cup it may become a serious problem as the whole world will be able to watch it.”
The outspoken Brazilian was dropped from July’s World Cup qualifying draw just 24 hours before it took place although FIFA attributed his absence to club commitments with Zenit that weekend.
Hulk added that he has learnt to live with the abuse and stop it from affecting his game.
“In the past I felt offended and was really angered with these racist outbreaks. But neither referees nor football officials here pay serious attention to this problem.
“That’s why I now try not to get angry. I just blow kisses to those who try to offend me.”