Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | December 22, 2012

‘Zenit’ fans’ manifesto: Did the press miss the point?

The publication by Zenit St Petersburg football fans of a manifesto entitled ‘Selection 12’ appears to confirm the underswell of racism and xenophobia among Russian football fans which has also been the subject of earlier MYPLACE blogs. Maria Tsygankova (Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg) argues here, however, that press coverage has focused on just one element of what is in fact a broad criticism of the ‘business model’ of contemporary football and a call to ‘Zenit’ owners and managers to find an alternative path.

‘The Twelfth Selection’ – the manifesto of Zenit football fans published on the Landscrona fan website (http://landscrona.ru/articles/index.php?id=3590) – has caused a storm not only in the field of professional football but also among journalists and fans. However, there is one very important ‘but’ in this story. Very few commenting on it have read the document from beginning to end. The majority, for some reason, have concentrated on one specific issue; the question of Zenit and its attitude to black players.[1]

Of course we cannot ignore what the fans said on this matter but it is important to set it in the context of what else the manifesto contained.  First, the fans commented on the actions of one of the apprentices of the St Petersburg club. For those who don’t know, in September, the Zenit defender  Igor’ Denisov refused to play in the match against Krylia Sovetov unless his wages were raised in line with that of the ‘Legionnaires’[2]. The team’s management decided to reassign him to the youth team, claiming wages were more or less equal. The second point made in the manifesto follows directly from the first. Football, the fans complain, is becoming more about the profit to be made on the season’s results than the game itself:

This way of conducting football business (given competent management of the club), on the one hand, allows certain clubs to develop and guarantees sporting success. On the other hand, football increasingly resembles a factory which, similar to Hollywood, produces standard (as it is fashionable to say now) ‘football projects’ each of which tries to climb Olympus and reap its cash prize.

The fans say that for them it is important that Zenit retains its identity. The identity of the club, they are certain, will help furnish the players with a certain set of qualities. In terms of football these include: dedication, an ability to compete to the very last minute of the match regardless of the score, not cheating (through diving etc), and a desire to win by honest means. The list continues of the human qualities fans would like to see in players. These include abstention from smoking and drinking, homosexuality, ‘star syndrome’ and ‘bullying’ (of younger footballers). In addition to the qualities already noted, the ideal player for fans is someone who behaves respectably in everyday life, has an interest in the history and traditions of St Petersburg and Russia and…. ‘has a respectful attitude to accurate and professional representatives of the media who work for fans’.

Then they make a suggestion, with which you may not agree, but would certainly not be poorly received by me or the majority of my friends since, if it were to happen, football would become a lot more interesting to watch even if it meant that the club we support ceased to be the best club in Eastern Europe (as Zenit likes to promote itself) and became just an average team in the Russian championship. The suggestion is that local players be given preference in recruiting to the team. The proposal envisages a series of concentric circles. Priority would be give to players from the inner circle – St Petersburg  and Leningrad region. Moving outwards, then players might be taken from the North-Western Federal region and central Russia, then the rest of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the Slavic countries, the Baltic countries and Scandivania, and only then the rest of Europe.

Here the real question is, do we invest money in the growth of the team and its long-term prospects (i.e. try to grow our own young stars), or do we spend money here and now to buy up the best from the whole world? The fans also say that ceilings for wages of players should be set. And what’s wrong with that? When you are a star and have in a month more than a normal person could barely earn in a year, you can go a bit crazy.

A word on the question of apprentices. It is worth recounting here a particularly negative example at Zenit. A young player who had successfully made it into the main squad of the club was arrested by the police. They had stopped his ‘Infinity’ car in the centre of the city and found a young woman, who had been drinking, behind the wheel. She turned out to be the wife of a Zenit player. While they were writing out the ticket, the footballer moved from the passenger seat into the driving seat and drove off. He was also drunk. When the police stopped the ‘star’, insults flew. He was deprived of his driving license for 18 months and fined for minor hooliganism (although surely his actions were more serious than showing one’s backside on Dvortsovaia Square). The affair ended in his transfer to another, weaker club – Kuban’ (Krasnodar). It left a sour taste for fans, however. Star syndrome appears to be catching.

Finally, we need to address the question of the fans’ demand that the club say ‘no to blacks and gays in Zenit’… Again, context is important here. In contrast to Europe, Russian society retains a largely traditional attitude to homosexuality, with all the attendant consequences, including homophobia. The state’s actions only encourage such attitudes. The paragraph on the prohibition of LGBT propaganda  in St Petersburg code of administrative offences is to be rolled out to the whole of Russia. And finally, that on which everybody as focused – the resistance to black players. In the manifesto, the fans say that they are not against black players in principle or their presence in the Petersburg club in particular. But that it is simply better to manage without them.  Arguably, a statement by Zenit fans that they would prefer the team to prioritise bringing on their own apprentices would not have drawn so much attention had it not be seen in the context of previous incidents (the Ku-klux-klan hoods during the Marseilles match in 2008 or more recent incidents of offering bananas to, and throwing banana skins at, dark-skinned players. But, in fact, the statement, in its entirety, is about something rather different; the need to nurture one’s own stars.

p.s. Of course, it must be acknowledged that there are certainly aggressively oriented groups in among St Petersburg fans and that ever more frequently the words ‘white power’ can be heard at the Petrovskii stadium. But these are isolated groups and the overwhelming majority of fans (including leaders of the fan movement) clearly do not support these sentiments.


[1] The manifesto was widely reported to constitute a call by Zenit St Petersburg fans to exclude non-white and gay players from the team. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/20781804

[2] A term used in Russia to denote ‘foreign players’ as opposed to those coming through as apprentices in the domestic system.


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