MOSCOW: Russia was praised last weekend by Sepp Blatter for its infrastructural preparations ahead of teh 2018 World Cup but FIFA’s president – proud proclaimer of a zero tolerance attitude to racism and discrimination – will not be so happy with Russian fans writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
This follows a demand by the major supporters group of champions Zenit St Petersburg that the club refrain from buying black and gay players. That followed controversy over the acquisition of Brazil striker Hulk and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel.
In a website statement the Zenit fan club Landscrona – in a letter called the “Selection 12 manifesto” said: “We’re not racists but we see the absence of black players at Zenit as an important tradition. It would allow Zenit to maintain the national identity of the club, which is the symbol of St Petersburg.”
The fans’ declaration threatens to present an intriguing test for UEFA president Michel Platini. The Frenchman leads a federation which has come under heavy fire for a lenient attitude to racist behaviour by fans, most recently Serb supporters at an under-21 match against England.
Yet one of its high-profile Champions League sponsors is the Russian energy giant Gazprom which, last March, signed a $20m sponsorship deal with . . . Zenit.
St Petersburg is the city from which Vitaly Mutko rose to political prominence – and Mutko is not only Russia’s Sports Minister but a member of world federation FIFA’s governing executive committee.
The club have been the only top club in Russia to have never signed an African player while the northern city of St Petersburg is known to have a strong right-wing nationalist influence.
The fans said they want more home-grown or European players in the team.
“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 bacground as these nations,” the letter said.
They also expressed their opposition to having “sexual minorities” in the team and demanded that each player would give “101 percent effort” in every match.
Several prominent black players have turned down lucrative offers from the wealthy club over the past 12 months after receiving death threats from Zenit fans, local media reported.
The club refused to comment on the fans’ letter.
Zenit have been in turmoil for the past few months with several senior players unhappy after the wealthy club splashed out more than $100m on Brazilian Hulk and Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel just before the transfer deadline.
Zenit demoted Russia skipper Igor Denisov to the reserve team in September after he refused to play, issuing an ultimatum to renegotiate his contract in line with what Hulk was making. He later apologised and was reinstated.
Blatter had been effusive in his praise of Russian World Cup preparations after last week’s meeting of the FIFA executive committee confirmed the venues for the ‘headline matches’ at the 2018 World Cup finals.
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