At the moment, Russian football is getting more publicity than ever. Thanks to cash injections from fossil fuel based wealth, Russian and Ukranian clubs are starting to flex their muscles on the European stage. Russia has also won the right to host the 2018 World Cup. On the face of it, this seems to make sense – they have never hosted the competition before and they have a reasonable infrastructure and suitable stadia. There is a downside to all this attention though – when you lift up a rock to look underneath, you often see all manner of insects and slimy things, and people are noticing things that make them squirm when they look closely at Russian football.
An example of this came to light yesterday when a Zenit St Petersburg Supporters Club called Landscrona published an open letter to the club. In the letter, they urged the club to maintain its ‘national identity’. Expanding on this, they said: “We only want players from other brotherly Slav nations, such as Ukraine and Belarus as well as from the Baltic states and Scandinavia. We have the same mentality and historical and cultural background as these nations”. In other words – whites only. They went even further than that though – stating they had a problem with having ‘sexual minorities’ in the team too – so that’s gays out too. Doesn’t St Petersburg sound like a wonderful place to visit?
The City has long been seen as having a strong right-wing presence, and many black players have been dissuaded from signing for Zenit after receiving threats from fans, including French international Yann M’Vila. They are by no means the only club to have racists in their midst in Russia, with problems being reported at Spartak, Lokomotiv and Kazan also, but they have by far the worst reputation.
Zenit are bankrolled by the Russian Gas company Gazprom. They won the Uefa Cup in 2008 and the Russian League and Cup Double in 2010 and the League again in 2012. Their current manager is high profile Italian maestro Luciano Spalletti. This summer, they made headlines when they paid over $100m for Brazilian striker Hulk, and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel. Interestingly Witsel is from a mixed-race background, which can’t have gone down well with Landscrona.
Today, the club came out with a statement roundly criticizing Landscrona – Spalletti saying: “Tolerance for me is most of all the ability to understand and accept differences. Furthermore, being tolerant means that you fight against any kind of stupidity”. The club owners will know that to be seen supporting racism is going to be box office death, and the coaches will know that that sort of attitude will not only affect their ability to get black players in, but any player who has any sort of sense of decency.
It is not the job of Football to remove racism from all of society. All they can do is work hard at identifying the racists and removing them from the game. It looks like Zenit have their work cut out if they truly want to stamp this sort of abhorrent behaviour out, but thanks to Landscrona’s idiocy, the whole world will be watching to ensure they do.