Fans of international soccer—including yours truly—get smug about the lack of passion on view at the stadiums of professional sports teams in the U.S. A pond may separate American fans from their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, but in terms of noise and atmosphere, there’s a vast, unbridgeable chasm. (Sorry, America, but while you’re buying your peanuts and crackerjack, this is what we’re doing.)
Still, I’m relieved the following could never take place: Imagine what would happen if a large group of fans of one of your country’s most important teams issued a public “manifesto” urging this team to never acquire any black or homosexual players. Unthinkable, right? Not in Russia. From the AP:
Landscrona, the largest Zenit [St. Petersburg] fan club, released a manifesto Monday demanding the club field an all-white, heterosexual team. It added that “dark-skinned players are all but forced down Zenit’s throat now, which only brings out a negative reaction” and said gay players were “unworthy of our great city.”
Zenit St. Petersburg is one of Russia’s most successful teams of recent years, winners of the UEFA Cup in 2008 (now called the Europa League), a continent-wide competition. And Landscrona, whose iconography includes imperious blue banners of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, is a mainstream fan organization. It offered this pathetic defense of its bigotry: “We are not racists and for us the absence of black Zenit players is just an important tradition that underlines the team’s identity and nothing more.” That identity, we’re supposed to believe, can assimilate all white Slavic or Scandinavian footballers—and, hey, why not the team MVP Venezuelan-born Portuguese midfielder Danny as well—but not dark-skinned players. There’s no openly gay soccer player in Russia, so we assume Landscrona added a layer of homophobic frosting atop its turd pie of racism just to cover all the bases.
To their credit, Zenit as a club has rejected Landscrona’s manifesto. The team’s Italian coach Luciano Spaletti decried the “stupidity” of the decree; embarrassed club officials claim they will work toward combating xenophobia and bigotry in the former Russian imperial capital. Said Spaletti: “I can personally assure you that I will do everything I can to help those who seek to explain to people what tolerance is, and the need to respect other cultures and traditions.”
But this is all easier said than done. A former Zenit coach, the Dutchman Dick Advocaat, once claimed signing a black player at Zenit would be “impossible” given the animosity of the team’s fanbase. This year, the club, backed by the wealth of global energy giant Gazprom, bucked the trend and spent nearly $100 million in signing two highly-coveted stars who happen to be mixed-race. The Belgian sparkplug Axel Witsel and Givanildo Vieira da Souza, a broad-shouldered Brazilian striker known worldwide by his nickname Hulk (pronounced “Ool-kee” in Brazil), were on the shopping lists of some of Europe’s biggest clubs—in leagues far more prestigious than Russia’s—but made their way east because of Zenit’s financial clout. Their acquisition hasn’t gone down well with some Zenit fans, not least those in Landscrona; Hulk, at the very least, looks likely to leave in January. Another potential Zenit signing, Yann M’Vila, a French defensive midfielder of Congolese origin, chose wisely not to join the St. Petersburg club after receiving a slew of death threats from racist fans.
Zenit, whose fans include Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, is known for its particularly right-wing nationalist support. But it’s hardly alone. While many countries in Western Europe have moved out of the stone age of hooliganism, neo-fascist thuggery is sadly alive and kicking in a lot of Eastern European stadiums. Soccer hooligans in Moscow were among the main culprits in violent riots against migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus a few years ago. There are myriad black players from Africa and Brazil plying their trade in the ruble-rich Russian league; many have horror stories.
When he left Lokomotiv Moscow to join English club West Bromwich Albion in 2010, Peter Odemwingie was waved farewell by Lokomotiv fans with a banner taunting him with a banana and the words “Thanks West Brom.” Odemwingie, who was born in the U.S.S.R. to a Nigerian father and a Russian Tatar mother, described to the Daily Mail the ubiquitous, inescapable racism—monkey chants and jeers—he and other players of color experienced in Russia: “Every time [black players] receive the ball you can hear it. The noises. You feel it. It was more painful for me than, say, Brazilian players who are black, because I’m Russian.” His new club’s fans in England came up with their own banner as a riposte:It read “Thanks Lokomotiv” and showed Odemwingie celebrating his winning goal on his debut.
It’s not enough to say that this sort of behavior out of Russia is unacceptable. Years of UEFA and FIFA-led campaigns against racism have yet to clear this scourge from the terraces. When fans of certain club or national sides disrupt games with racist songs or target black players with vile taunts—as was recently the case in an Under-21 clash between England and Serbia—all too often the guilty parties receive cursory penalties and fines. Moreover, despite its problems with racism and hooligan violence, Russia has been awarded the privilege of hosting the World Cup in 2018. Non-white acolytes of the global game may rightly question whether a trip to Russia then would be worth it—and not just because of the cost.
Zenit is currently third in the Russian league, behind one team that’s bank-rolled by an oligarch billionaire and another by a state energy company. Landscrona can preach the virtues of Zenit’s specious white identity, but the true defining principles of Russian soccer—and increasingly the sport worldwide—are the imperatives of petro-businesses and the whims of tycoons. While distasteful in its own right, at least that’s a passion that’s color blind.