Last week, Brian Bondus and I talked about the biggest move in Russian Football: Zenit St. Petersburg’s expensive signings of Hulk and Axel Witsel.
These signings are obviously important because these are two of the top players in the world coming to play in Russia, but another reason it is important: they are not white. Zenit has a history of racism according not only to former CSKA Striker and rival Vagner Love (who is a dark-skinned Brazilian), but also from their former coach Dick Advocaat.
“In Russia similar things happened two or three times,” Vagner Love told the Brazilian daily Globo Esporte. “It was always during the matches against Zenit, which is the most racist team in Russia. … It’s their way.”
Their former coach Dick Advocaat once admitted that the club’s core fans prevented him from signing players based on their skin color. (via/rt.com)
Advocaat is no longer the coach, and Zenit seems to have welcomed stars Hulk (who is Brazilian) and Axel Witsel (half-Martiniquais, half-Belgian). If you look at Zenit’s recent sucess, they have done so with minimal help from foreign players. The closest Zenit have had to non-white players are the Portuguese Bruno Alves and Danny. People from Portugal are generally considered to be white Europeans, so this fits in Zenit’s profile. Zenit aside, Russia has recently been known for racism against Latin and black players.
Some fairly recent examples:
August 2010: Peter Odemwingie, an Uzbek player of Nigerian origin was traded to English side West Bromwich Albion. In response, his former team Lokomotiv Moskva put up banners with bananas drawn on them thanking West Brom for taking Odemwingie.
March 2011 and June 2011: Brazilian Roberto Carlos of Anzhi was holding a flag in a pre-game ceremony when a banana was thrown at him at Zenit. Later in June, Krylia Sovetov fans threw another banana in front of Carlos during play.
March 2012: Lokomotiv fans threw a banana on the field at Congolese player Christopher Samba of Anzhi.
This is not limited to Russia, as Spanish and Italian fans are also known for blatant racist displays against non-white players. Many of this is detailed in a great ESPN story about soccer racism. Part of the story talks about how there has not been a civil rights movement in Europe like the one in the United States. This is especially true of Russia, which is only a 21-year old country after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to ESPN, many of this is because of the lack of non-whites in many countries in Europe, especially in Russia. Those who are non-white can be abused in many of those countries.
Personally, being American and being here for 16 years (as opposed to the first 5 years in Russia/Ukraine) I can’t relate to racism in Russian soccer. I don’t see racism in sport or soccer here in the U.S. Black players are not only accepted as much as white players here, but they are also well-liked. French star Thierry Henry – part of the ESPN video – has been well received in New York after suffering years of monkey chants and thrown bananas in Europe. To me, it’s disgusting and unacceptable in sport.
Hopefully Zenit’s signing of two non-white players shows the management putting its foot down on a history of racism. We have the whole season to see if Zenit fans will continue to abuse players from other teams (especially Anzhi, who has several black players including Cameroonian superstar Samuel Eto’o) while cheering on their own Hulk and Witsel. Also interesting will be to see if Zenit gets a taste of its own medicine when they go to places like Lokomotiv or Samara where racism has previously occurred.