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'Navalny Plays Soccer?' World Cup Commentator's Mention Of Kremlin Foe Causes A Stir

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has long claimed he is blacklisted from appearing on state television, and one prominent state TV host has said he's not allowed to interview the Kremlin foe on air.

So Russian soccer fans were understandably surprised when a commentator for state-run Channel One's broadcast of the June 17 World Cup match between Germany and Mexico wondered aloud how Navalny might fare on the pitch.

At the 49-minute mark of the match at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, commentator Kirill Dementyev discussed when the German side -- which went on to lose 1-0 -- might play "high-pressure soccer," using an adjective that is identical to Navalny's last name and relatively rare in colloquial Russian.

Fellow commentator Leonid Slutsky, a professional soccer coach and ex-player (note: not the Russian lawmaker of the same name who has been accused of sexual harassment), immediately followed up with a quip: "Navalny plays soccer?"

After a brief pause in which Dementyev failed to respond, Slutsky added: "Well, that would be interesting to see."

Russian social-media users picked up on the exchange almost immediately.

"Channel One just mentioned the unnamable," one Twitter user wrote, an apparent reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin's well-documented aversion to saying Navalny's name publicly.

Others photoshopped a soccer ball under Navalny's foot in an image showing him leaving a Moscow jail on June 14 after serving a 30-day sentence for his role in organizing anti-Putin protests last month.

"Navalny soccer is when you go onto the pitch and the referee immediately bans you for 30 matches," one Twitter user wrote.

"Now at soccer games you can chant 'Nav-val-ny! Na-val-ny!' Meaning, 'give us high-pressure football,'" wrote another.

The popular Russian website cracked wise, saying the comment may have rattled employees of the network.

"At the Channel One office when Slutsky joked about Navalny."

While Navalny is not given airtime on Russian state television to voice his criticism of the government, his legal troubles -- including financial-crimes convictions that he and his supporters say were fabricated to discredit him -- are frequently covered by state media.

Asked about a "blacklist" on his Channel One talk show, veteran Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner said in October that Navalny was among a handful of political figures he was not allowed to feature as guests.

WATCH: Vladimir Pozner On Aleksei Navalny (in Russian, no subtitles)

The editor-in-chief of state-controlled Rossia-24 television said in December 2015 that Navalny does not appear on the network because the opposition leader "tries to create his own agenda -- one that doesn't correspond to the agenda of the country or the agenda dictated today by the government's executive branch."

"There is an understanding of which material we can work with, but there's no hard ban," the editor, Yevgeny Bekasov, said in the radio interview.

Navalny himself responded to the reference during the Germany-Mexico match: "That moment when the censor fell and I ended up on Channel One. Well, almost."

His lawyer, Ivan Zhdanov, said on Twitter he believed it was "the first neutral mention" of the anticorruption crusader on Channel One "in many years."

Some observers jokingly worried about Slutsky's professional future.

"Apparently no one told this expert that it's not allowed to mention the opposition politician's name on air on Channel One," journalist Yegor Pozdnyakov wrote in the Russian newspaper Kommersant on June 18. "Let's hope that this won't take his entertaining commentary away from us."

One Twitter user needled the network by suggesting it might suppress video of the entire game: "On Channel One, you can watch replays of all the matches...except for Germany-Mexico."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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