Racism in Russian football: Zenit fans let side down
- 27 March 2011
- From the section Europe
As Russia prepares to host the 2018 Football World Cup can the country's domestic game shake off its reputation for racism?
Last November, shortly before Fifa made its choice of World Cup hosts, the Russian Football Union adopted a seven-point memorandum on fighting racism.
It includes a commitment to producing anti-racist guidelines and establishing a website called Racism Offside.
The need for a strategy was underlined this week after a photograph was published showing a fan of the league champions, Zenit St Petersburg, waving a banana at Roberto Carlos. The former Brazilian star was captaining the visiting team, Anzhi Makhachkala.
We were attending the match as part of an investigation into allegations that Zenit - the only major Russian team to have never signed a player of African heritage - has fostered a culture in which managers have been discouraged from signing black players.
Those allegations were initially made in 2004 by Vlastimil Petrela, Zenit's then manager. He repeated them in a recent BBC interview:
"I wanted to hire a black player, but I could not," he said.
"I don't know why, but the management did not want it. Whenever I raised the issue, the answer always was, 'Zenit is not interested.'"
Zenit told the BBC that the officials in charge of hiring when Petrela was manager are no longer with the club, so they were unable to comment on his allegations, and Luciano Spaletti, Zenit's current coach, told the BBC he was free to sign any player he wished.
Petrela's successor at Zenit, the current Russian national coach Dick Advocaat, was quoted in 2008 as saying that the fans at the club would not accept a black player - although there has subsequently been some dispute about the content of the recording.
Advocaat's office told the BBC they were unable to contact him for a response.
What is clear, though, is that the leaders of the Ultras, a 5,000-strong group of Zenit supporters, are happy their club has still not signed an African.
Speaking at a genteel hotel in the Swiss capital Bern, before a recent Europa League game, one of the leaders of the Ultras said they did not start the tradition of not having black players, but "we are upholding it and we approve of it".
Another leader, who is an employee of the club, added: "We don't have a problem with black players. No black players - no problem."
The leaders - who did not want their names used - are not peripheral figures.
The Ultras have played an important role in Zenit's success, giving the club the kind of substantial and loyal fan-base which is rare in Russian football.
The Ultras have access to discounted tickets in a part of the stadium reserved for them.
A fan has to prove loyalty and commitment to the club at an informal interview with the Ultras' leaders in order to make the grade.
There was no doubting the Ultras' commitment at the Anzhi Makhachkala match.
It may have been an early season game against modest opposition, but it felt - at times - like a cup final.
The Ultras' section of the ground was a sea of blue and white flags and the choreographed chanting lasted the entire 90 minutes, without a break, creating an intimidating atmosphere for the visitors.
That intimidation also took a different form. When one of Anzhi's African players touched the ball, at times a low rumble of monkey chants could be made out, coming from a small section of the crowd.
When the banana photo was published, Zenit released a statement condemning racial intolerance, and described the incident as a provocative act which had nothing to do with their regular fans.
One of the leaders of the Zenit Ultras concurred, although he told Sovietski Sport newspaper: "We do not consider a banana a racist symbol."
The club says that the culprit has now been found and banned from the stadium for life.
The Russian Football Union says it is taking no further action, because there was no official complaint from Anzhi Makhachkala.
Earlier this year, the Union did put forward the idea of docking points from clubs for racist fan behaviour. This remains at the proposal stage.
Speaking to the BBC before the Anzhi match, Zenit's head of fan relations, Alexei Blinov, said racism was a problem for world football, not just Russia - and maintained Zenit was at the vanguard of fighting prejudice.
"We started a tolerance campaign in this city in 2006, way before Uefa turned its attention to it," he said.
"We've organised a series of lectures in schools and colleges and we're part of Uefa's Show Racism the Red Card campaign."
When he was informed what the leader of the Ultras had told the BBC about not accepting black players, he said it showed the tolerance campaign had not been effective enough.
"Thank you for telling me this, I will talk to these guys. Next time you come, you will see these same guys showing a red card to racism," he said.
Ordinary Zenit fans at the Anzhi game said they had not heard about the club's tolerance campaign, but questioned whether one was necessary.
"We're not racist," said one, "so why would we need an initiative?"
But others beg to differ. Apart from a brief spell at Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Nigerian player, Isaac Okoronkwo, has spent the past decade at teams in former Soviet republics.
He says that he was led to believe Zenit would not buy him because he was black.
Zenit officials say they are unaware of that case - and deny there is a race-based hiring policy.
They give a variety of reasons why the club has never signed an African player, ranging from their scouting policy to St Petersburg's cold weather.
They also point out that they have signed players from a variety of backgrounds, including two South Koreans and the Portuguese defender, Bruno Alves.
But, however swiftly Zenit has dealt with the banana incident, it has provided another example of the cloud that hangs over Russian football, as it prepares to welcome supporters - and players - from across the world.