Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr said Friday he believes his team will have the support of Russian fans, as he sought to play down fears of racism from some supporters ahead of their opening World Cup game against Croatia.
“We all are sure that there will not be any problems for the Nigerian players,” Rohr told reporters in Kaliningrad, which will host the Group D clash on Saturday evening.
“Because the atmosphere we felt already arriving in Russia was very good.”
The Russian game has been plagued by racist fans for decades, and world governing body FIFA last month fined the Russian football association 25,000 euros ($29,000) after several black players were subjected to discriminatory chants during a friendly game against France.
But Rohr said he is confident local fans will get behind his squad for a number of reasons — not least the fact that captain John Obi Mikel’s girlfriend is Russian.
“Perhaps they will have sympathy also because we have a Russian player in our team, he’s Russian and Nigerian, Brian Idowu,” Rohr said.
The defender, whose mother is Russian, currently plays for Russian Premier League side Amkar Perm.
“We have also Ahmed Musa who’s playing in (CSKA) Moscow and the captain’s family relation so perhaps we will have a little bit of sympathy from the public tomorrow,” the German coach said.
“I think there will be much more Croatian supporters than Nigerians but I think we dont have anything to lose. And the players will go out there not thinking about discrimination or any other problems.”
Rohr joked that he had answered a question from a Nigerian journalist before departing for Russia who asked if his players would be allowed to socialise at the tournament.
“The only one who can meet a Russian girl is the captain, because he’s living with her,” he said.
FIFA has instituted a three-strikes policy against any racist abuse from fans across the tournament, threatening to abandon matches if supporters ignore a stadium speaker announcement and then a pause in play.
Both Nigeria and Croatia will seek a winning start on Saturday as they bid to get out of a tough Group D featuring Iceland — who finished about Croatia in qualifying — and two-time champions Argentina.