Racist behavior by soccer fans in Russia is damaging the country’s attempts to seek international respect for the increasingly big money domestic game ahead of its hosting of the 2018 World Cup.
A supporters’ group for Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg provoked outrage this month by publicly urging the club not to sign any black players. Yet officials and clubs seem reluctant to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
The Russian Premier League has in recent seasons seen an unprecedented influx of foreign talent — often from Africa or South America — that has sharply raised its profile abroad.
However, in scenes reminiscent of Britain in the 1970s, players from Africa and South America still face monkey chants and brandishing of bananas.
“Whenever we played Zenit and Spartak Moscow, they were constantly shouting ‘ooh, ooh.’ They were comparing me to a monkey,” Liberian midfielder Sekou Oliseh, who plays for CSKA Moscow, told Sport Express.
Hardcore “Ultras” openly take part in an annual nationalist march, although this year the Russian Football Union urged fans not to go.
This month, Zenit fan group Landskrona asked the club not to sign black or gay players or those from South America, apparently referring to star Brazilian striker Hulk and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel, whose father originated from Martinique.
“We make our player selections without any limitation regarding origin, religion or skin color,” Zenit director of sports Dietmar Beiersdorfer has insisted.
Yury Fedotov, head of Zenit’s security service, reacted angrily when asked if racism was a problem.
“I categorically reject the message that racism is in any way characteristic of Zenit,” he told reporters, criticizing the media for blowing out of proportion the opinion of “a small group of fans.”
However, many felt officials did not go far enough.
“The manifesto is just another proof of complete anarchy in Russian football,” wrote a commentator in liberal business daily Vedomosti. “Fans are openly declaring the racial purity of their club, and the leaders of the Russian Football Union and the Russian Football Premier League don’t even make a statement.”
Anzhi Makhachkala defender Christopher Samba, who is black, told BBC Five live radio: “Everybody knows Zenit supporters are no good and racist.”