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KALININGRAD, Russia – Nigeria's coach and captain brushed aside fears of the team being targeted with racist abuse in World Cup stadiums Friday, saying that the country's young players have enjoyed a warm welcome in Russia.
There have been concerns about racism from local fans at the World Cup after a report last month said that 19 incidents of racist chants were recorded in Russia this season including monkey noises directed at black France players and racial abuse directed by Spartak Moscow supporters at Liverpool youth player Bobby Adekanye.
A day before taking on Croatia in their Group D opener in Kaliningrad, Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel, however, said his team has been welcomed to Russia with open arms.
"Russian people have been very nice to us — a lot of Russian supporters seem to support the Nigerian team," he said. "I don't know why — maybe because my girlfriend is Russian."
It may help the Nigerian team that Obi Mikel's girlfriend isn't the only Russian link in the team, which also must take on Argentina and Iceland in Group D.
"We have a little sympathy perhaps because we have also a Russian player in our team," coach Gernot Rohr said. "He's Russian and Nigerian — he's Bryan Idowu — and we have Ahmed Musa who's playing at CSKA Moscow."
Nigeria players have good memories of Russia after beating Poland 1-0 in Krasnodar in a March friendly, thanks to a goal by forward Victor Moses.
"We all are sure there will not be any problem for the Nigerian players, because the atmosphere we have felt already on arriving in Russia was very good," Rohr said.
Idowu, who was born and raised in St. Petersburg, told The Associated Press last month that some fans in the country viewed racist abuse as a tactic to distract opposing players, rather than as a statement of ideology.
"I think most of them do that to put pressure on a player psychologically, maybe so he doesn't want to keep playing," he said. "It could just be because someone finds it funny."