- (Photo: Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk)
FC Zenit Saint Petersburg, a top soccer club in Russia, has received an official declaration from fans asking that all black and gay players be excluded from the team.
Zenit, one of Russia's biggest clubs and the 2012 Champions of the Russian Premier League, was the only club in the league without any black players until earlier this summer when owners brought Brazilian start striker Hulk and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel on board. This has angered Zenit's largest fan group, Landscrona, who in an open letter to the club said that black players are "forced down Zenit's throat" while gay players would be "unworthy of our great city."
Dietmar Beiersdorfer, Zenit director of sports, has posted on the club's official website that players are selected "without any limitation regarding origin, religion or skin color" and rejected fans' request.
"We have absolutely no policy in Zenit of limiting our player selection in any superficial way," Beiersdorfer said.
Zenit is one of Russia's most successful clubs, having won the league title in 2007, 2010 and 2012. The team also won the 2008 UEFA Cup, an annual competition featuring many clubs all across Europe, and featured in this season's Champions League, the continent's top sporting competition. Like much of Eastern Europe, however, Russia still faces some deep-rooted issues regarding racism, which is rampant among nationalists in many big cities.
While Russian clubs have been signing black players, particularly Brazilians, in recent years as the profile of the league has increased, many supporters remain opposed to people of other ethnic backgrounds representing their teams. Black players have faced monkey chants and had bananas thrown at them, which has led to Russia's soccer association fining and threatening clubs with further punishment, but it has not yielded any noticeable progress on the issue.
"I'm not surprised. Everybody knows Zenit supporters are no good and racist," Congo international Christopher Samba, who is black, told BBC News. The defender plays for another Russian side, Anzhi Makhachkala, after moving from English club Blackburn Rovers a couple of seasons ago.
"They are living in another century. It's a sad day for Russian football," Samba continued, who had a banana thrown at him at a Premier League game last year. "In this time we have different communities and countries that constitute teams. If they can't accept that then they are never going to progress."
Luciano Spalletti, Zenit's Italian head coach, said that the fans' manifesto was "stupidity."
"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," he said. "I think that Zenit has proven through its work that the club understands what tolerance is, and what it means to have tolerant behavior. The team has gathered players from different countries and ethnic groups who work together to achieve a common goal."
Raymond Verheijen, a former coach of Zenit, added that serious action needs to be taken by the sport's governing body to address these issues.
"If the fans are asking for an all-white team, I'm actually quite shocked to be honest," Verheijen said.
"I know, based on my experience with Russian football and Zenit, there are serious issues about racism, so I was already familiar with the problem," he added. "But if it's true that the fans have asked for this policy then I think its time that the club and the Federation also took some action against these kind of things."
Russian officials know they must work quickly and efficiently to address problems of racism on soccer grounds and in the wider society, as the nation gets ready to host its first-ever World Cup in 2018.