Wednesday’s night’s UEFA Cup final in Manchester is in danger of being overshadowed by a race row after Dick Advocaat, the respected Dutch manager of Russian side Zenit St Petersburg, claimed that his club do not sign black players because their fans would not accept it.
Advocaat made his allegation in an interview with a Russian magazine as his team prepared for their final against Rangers in the City of Manchester Stadium.
Advocaat said: ‘I would be happy to sign anyone, but the fans don’t like black players. Quite honestly, I do not understand how they could pay so much attention to skin colour. For me there’s no difference between white, black or red. But they care.’
Zenit, who are run by Russian oligarch Alexander Dyukov, the head of oil company Gazprom, deny having an all-white policy and point to the presence in their first-team squad of different nationalities and religions. The only non-white faces, though, are two South Koreans.
Now Zenit have been accused by Lord Ousley, chairman of the Kick It Out campaign, the Football Association’s anti-racism pressure group, of hiding behind their fans’ views.
Lord Ousley said: ‘The problem with a lot of “eastern bloc” football clubs is that they are complicit with racism by hiding behind what fans say they want. It’s damaging to a European competition if a club is being restricted in this way.
‘A lot of club chairmen in England in the 1970s and 1980s would have said that their fans didn’t want black players and would boo them. But clubs have to be brave. You can change the culture, say that you’re going to sign the best players, regardless of race. If clubs aren’t prepared to do that, they are being complicit with racism.’
The arrival of the Zenit team this week will coincide with Prime Minister Gordon Brown hosting an event for another campaign group, Show Racism the Red Card, which works alongside Ousley in fighting racism in football.
UEFA expect 10, 000 Zenit fans to make the journey to Manchester and an FA spokesman said: ‘We would expect fans attending any game—whether or not an English team is involved—in this country to respect players from every culture.’
Whether Rangers’ black players receive such respect remains to be seen. But, according to Advocaat, Zenit’s fans will not accept the sort of talented players he wants to sign if they are ‘dark-skinned’. Advocaat, who has worked with black players during a coaching career that has included four years at Rangers and two periods as the coach of the Dutch national team, said: ‘The fans are the most important thing that Zenit have.
That’s why I have to ask them outright how they’ll react if we sign a dark-skinned player.
‘Frankly, the only players who can make Zenit stronger are darkskinned. Look at the Brazilians who play for CSKA Moscow, for example.
But for us it would be impossible. If they don’t agree with me, I will not do it. I don’t want to buy a player who won’t be accepted by the fans.’
Despite Wednesday’s high-profile occasion, UEFA, the governing body of the European game, say they will not investigate Advocaat’s claims because they insist the interview has been misconstrued.
William Gaillard, special advisor to UEFA president Michel Platini, admitted that his organisation had had no direct contact with Zenit but added: ‘This is not an issue we are tackling at this stage. We understand there was a mistake in the translation of the interview.’
However, that suggestion has been rejected by the journalist who conducted the interview for Pro Sport magazine.
‘We spoke in English and I have a recording of the interview,’ said Yuri Doud yesterday.
‘Advocaat was the first to say there was a problem, but we all know it is there at Zenit.’
Jonathan Wilson, an expert on Russian football and author of the book Behind The Curtain—Travels in Eastern European Football, says that ‘uniquely among Russia’s top clubs, Zenit have never fielded a black player’.
Wilson accepts that Zenit have made steps to counter racism and have an official policy of equal opportunity, but he insists that their fans reflect the reputation St Petersburg has as one of Russia’s most far right cities.
‘While the club condemns the racism of some of their fans, they take pride in how Russian their team is,’ said Wilson.
‘Seven of the likely starting 11 in Wednesday’s final, including their two real stars, Andrei Arshavin and Konstantin Zyryanov, are Russian.
By contrast, when CSKA won the UEFA Cup in 2005, they had six Russians in their line-up but their two most prominent players were Vagner Love and Daniel Carvalho, who are Brazilian.’
The failure to crack down on Zenit’s racist fan culture may already have had fatal consequences. On the night Zenit faced Olympique Marseille in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, Ghanaian university student Justice Adjei, 20, was stabbed 36 times by a gang of white youths.
‘They attacked to kill but the victim survived,’ said Aliou Tunkara, the president of St Petersburg’s Africa Union. ‘Every time Zenit play a team involving blacks, racial attacks in the stadium turn into violence on the streets.’
The attack took place before kick-off and no direct link has been established to the club’s supporters.
But another African student, Maira Mkamam, was stabbed six times in the chest and stomach last November on the night that Zenit won the Russian championship as fans celebrated throughout the city.
UEFA’s disciplinary commission are currently considering allegations by Olympique Marseille of racist abuse directed at their black players by Zenit fans.
Marseille’s president, Pape Diouf, said: ‘All the witnesses agree there were acts of racism against some of our players. My first feeling is contempt. We will use all our means to defend our players. I feel disgusted.’
A Zenit statement after the Marseille game rejected suggestions that the club were institutionally racist.
The club and players have taken part in programmes designed to fight racism and Zenit have displayed an anti-racist banner at their stadium this season.
They also condemned fans who racially abused Brazilian Antonio Geder, the captain of Russian club Saturn, in March 2006. But the city of St Petersburg has a reputation for racist attacks.
While UEFA’s public stance against racism is unequivocal, with numerous initiatives and grassroots work to fight discrimination, the fines imposed by their disciplinary commission have often seemed paltry.
In 2003 Patrick Vieira, then at Arsenal, accused UEFA of ‘hypocrisy’ after fining clubs just a few thousand pounds when he experienced a particularly gruesome night of racist abuse at a Champions League fixture in Valencia.
In response, UEFA fined Vieira £2,300 for criticising them.
Since then UEFA’s disciplinary commission have imposed marginally stronger punishments. The Serbian FA were fined £17,000 when their fans racially abused England’s black players at an Under-21 tournament last season.
Now, with Zenit St Petersburg poised to play on English soil, Europe’s football rulers face further pressure to hold clubs responsible for the racist views of their supporters.