Racism in the stands
As a native of St.Petersburg, supporting FC Zenit has been a family tradition for over three generations. Just as Russia has undergone dramatic changes since the fall of the Soviet Union, Zenit St. Petersburg has gone from a struggling, cash-strapped football club during the turbulent 90s to a football powerhouse with a virtually bottomless budget thanks to their generous Gazprom sponsors. Zenit’s evolution reflects not only the effects of the tremendous influx of gas and oil, but also reveals some of the uglier tendencies within Russian society that have emerged alongside the drastic increase in wealth.
For years now, the football governing bodies have expressed concern at the high levels of xenophobia and racism present in Russian football. Zenit St.Petersburg has over the years become a symbol of intolerance, ethnic hatred and prejudice, with a reputation that is arguably worse than those of other clubs in the Russian Premier League.
As Russia’s – and perhaps soon-to-be Europe’s – biggest spenders, Zenit have the luxury of being able to finance virtually any big name acquisition for any football star willing to ply their trade in a league defined by extravagant salaries, poor infrastructure and often extreme weather conditions. But frozen pitches aren’t the only thing St.Petersburg-bound football players have to worry about. The pleasure of making a fortune playing for Zenit comes with a price: a racist fan culture and isolation on the team.
Just a few months back, Landscrona – one of Zenit’s largest fan organizations – stated in an infamous manifesto that their beloved team should remain free of blacks and homosexuals. For the sake of preserving Zenit’s unique “regional identity”, the fans kindly asked their club’s management to promote local talent as well as players from “brotherly republics” and other Slavic nations.
As the document circulated through the media, causing outrage and disbelief across the world, the reactions to the document back in St.Petersburg were much more subdued, even empathetic at times. While the club tried to speak out against racism with Spaletti – Zenit’s highly paid Italian manager- calling the manifesto an act of “stupidity”, no measures were taken to officially condem this act or punish the fan group behind it.
Despite the club’s attempt to paint itself as a tolerant and open, Zenit remains the only team in Russia never to have signed a black player. As the manifesto shows, many of the club’s supporters are not only very aware of the the absence of players of color in the squad, but perceive it as a worthy tradition. The existence of this unofficial policy is an open secret and is seen by many as conscious attempt by the team’s management to appease their loyal – albeit extremely xenophobic – fan base.
So what do Zenit’s star foreign players have to say about all of this? Surely, the likes of Witsel, Bruno Alves and Danny must find this type of overt intolerance revolting, right ? Like most Russian clubs, Zenit has done its part in keeping their star foreign players away from the prying eyes of the media. In fact, club’s management has been known to censor its players, leaving the media with doctored soundbites and official press releases.
When the BBC finally got the chance to talk to Bruno Alves – Zenit’s Portuguese and decidedly non-Slavic looking half-back – on the subject of rampant racism among the fans, he dodged the questions, hammering out what sounded like scripted answers about how important it was for the team to win trophies and not worry about anything that happens off the pitch.
Isolation in the squad
After the recent record-breaking signings of Brazilian forward Hulk and Belgian defender Witsel, the Zenit squad now features two multiracial players – a first in the team’s history. Given Zenit’s track record of being associated with xenophobia and racism, it is all the more interesting to watch the way these two players are adjusting to life in Russia.
Despite the club’s management’s attempt to keep their team hermetically sealed away from the public, Axel Witsel’s active use of social media reveals some interesting details about the life of a foreign player on the squad. Looking through the hundreds of pictures posted by Axel on Twitter and Instagram, one cannot help but notice a peculiar pattern: there isn’t a single picture of Witsel in the company of one of the Russian players on the team. A small detail, but one that suggests the presence of a troubling sort of ethnic segregation within the squad
Signs of tension have occasionally come to the surface. The team’s notoriously short-tempered captain Roman Shirokov made the sarcastic remark that his Brazilian teammate: “Hulk doesn’t seem to be learning Russian, but I guess he’s got a big family and no time”. Things escalated when Zenit failed to progress to the next stages of the Europe League with Shirokov lashing out at Hulk’s attempt to take a penalty shot: “Hulk shouldn’t be messing with us. He should stick to his own business, which is scoring goals and winning games”.
Outside of Russia, during an interview in Portuguese on Euronews, Hulk grudgingly admitted that “some players disrespect me, but I’ve said nothing to avoid any problems”. But the Brazilian isn’t the only one having a time tough with his Russian teammates. Zenit’s latest acquisition, Portuguese defender Neru shed light on the degree of isolation in the squad. Based on his own words, Semak, a veteran and former PSG player, is “the only Russian on the team who speaks halfway decent English” and therefore the only connection between the Russian and foreign teammates. Though the club owners would rather the story be left untold, the Russian League’s biggest spender are experiencing basic communication problems, leading to alienation within the squad.
Zenit has failed to address both the racism among its fans and the lack of acceptance of people from different cultural backgrounds within the squad. Instead of celebrating the team’s culturally diverse squad to send a message to Russia’s football crazy and worryingly xenophobic youth, Zenit’s management continues to ignore the problem by keeping their expensive foreign players behind closed doors. As Hulk himself admits and his fellow non-Slavic players understand, there is “no need to be friends” with your Russian teammates. Zenit’s foreign imports know very well when not to speak about touchy subjects. Fortunately for them, they’ve quickly learned the rules by which contemporary Russian society plays: keep your mouth shut and enjoy the wealth.