Posted by : Michael Owen Wednesday, 2 January 2013
When supporters of Zenit St Petersburg last month released a manifesto demanding that the squad be made up of all-white players that included no homosexuals it created a negative image of the club and Russian football as a whole.
In a highly controversial manifesto that was quickly dismissed by senior figures at the club Landscrona, the largest fans group of the Russian side, claimed that black players were "forced down Zenit's throat" whilst gay players were "unworthy of our great city."
In light of the release of the manifesto, named 'Selection 12', The Football Examiner went out to learn more about the proposals from the Zenit supporters group, consulting Saint Petersburg based journalists and Russian football expert Ivan Potapov, here's what he had to say:
According to the fans themselves the main point is to make it clear they want to keep and preserve their "regional identity". They say it's not money but first and foremost home-grown players who have helped Zenit to become a real force in Russia and they want the club to keep it going.
The most shocking item in the manifesto reads: "We don't want to see any sexual minorities playing for our club". Homophobia among football supporters has its own story but it's probably the first time a core of any club's football supporters went out to admit they were homophobic.
But there's a strong background to this story - earlier this year Saint-Petersburg city Parliament passed the infamous act on "propaganda of homosexuality" driven by Putin's "United Russia" activists to "keep children away from it" and "protect them". Currently there's a possibility a similar act will be passed on a nation-wide level.
Their appeal is to use the regional-based strategy with four grades of "priorities" as their club's transfer policy. The first "priority" is to sign players from Saint-Petersburg and Leningrad Region, then from North-West Russia and Central Russia, then from rest of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, "slavic countries", "baltic countries" and Scandinavia and if there are no players that suit Zenit demands sign them from rest of Europe.
According to the manifesto they "don't need players from other continents other than Europe because we don't want to lose our regional identity".
There's a separate section on black players. According to authors of the manifesto "lack of black players in Zenit ranks is just a tradition that underlines our identity". "We have nothing against them but we want to see Zenit players with mentality similar to ours".
So it's really about "right mentality". They don't think black players would be good for Russia because of the "severe climate conditions" and "physical nature of the game" here.
There're clearly some ideas every supporter tends to agree with - fans of any club (mostly) prefer skilled local or home grown player to any outsider and would love to see their team play fair - especially the fans of clubs like Zenit with strong background of producing local players and stars.
But it seems to me that xenophobic flavour of "Selection 12" manifesto was influenced by far-right wing of Zenit supporters who want to spread their ideas and legitimise their use of racist slogans under the club crest and colours. There are strong links between football fans subculture (especially hooligans) and Neo-Nazis and other far-right organizations here in Russia and ex-USSR nations. The problem is the society turns a blind eye to unemployment xenophobia and racism of some of the youth and young workers.
Zenit supporters en masse are not different from any other supporters group in this country but - thanks to some Neo-Nazi activists and club management - they have some reputation in terms of "racism issues". The club has never signed a black player in its history.
There're some grounds for it — back in 90's Zenit was in decline, and had no money for foreign players at all. They signed some players from ex-USSR nations (Armenia, Belarus and Ukraine) but their players were mostly local lads. Zenit comes back to life in late 90s and grew in stature when some new names from its youth ranks have emerged.
There were a bunch of a really talented players (Arshavin, Kerzhakov, Malafeev and Bystrov among others) with addition of Czech and Slovak players (Martin Skrtel was one of them) their then-manager Petrzela signed. At the time some of the richest club in Russia (Spartak Moscow, CSKA, Locomotive) had already signed some good black players, even others signed unknown black players from Romanian and Bulgarian clubs.
Nobody really knows why club management turns down any possibility to sign any black players - now with Gazprom money they can sign any player they want. Some people say there was a big deal of xenophobia among Zenit and Gazprom directors and they didn't want to sign black players to their club but preferred to start an urban legend of "fans who don't want any black players" four or five years ago. But the fact is a fact - there were no players from Africa in Zenit history and a minor set of their fans are even proud to hear some media called them "racists".
History told us Zenit directors are not the ones who listen to any supporter's open letters, manifestos or whatever. They're businessmen and do with the club what they want to do. In the past six years they have sacked popular managers twice (first it was Vlastimil Petrzela and then Dick Advocaat who was extremely popular among Zenit faithful).The editorial team at The Football Examiner would like to thank Ivan for his analysis on the situation at Zenit St Petersburg. For more on Russian football as well as comment on the game around the rest of the world you can follow Ivan on Twitter.
They shocked some Russian conspiracy-looking media when the club signed couple of foreign players with dark skin colour (there were a few players from South Korea, later it was Bruno Alves and now Hulk and Witsel), they infuriated fans when they re-signed Vladimir Bystrov from Spartak Moscow (who left Zenit for arch-rivals Spartak Moscow and shut the door loudly saying he always wanted to play for them).
I don't think now it will be any different. But there's a Gordian knot no one wants to cut - and there's a possibility the situation will be escalated in the future. Some Russian media and rival fans fuel the flame, racist minority of Zenit fans plan their next move whilst the majority of Zenit fans have no clue what's wrong with their desire to watch local lads and players with right mentality playing and are puzzled why so many strangers call them racists.
Zenit directors decline to comment on the manifesto and stay silent as they always are. But at the same time their silence is a bad sign for Hulk and Witsel themselves. I don't think they were pleased to read the summary of "Selection 12" manifesto so they probably feel uncomfortable here and will probably think they should sit and decide if their future is with the Zenit or lies anywhere else.