By Delroy Alexander
Chairman, Sacred Sports Foundation
On first hearing the “Selection Manifesto 12” from a powerful Zenit St Petersburg fans group, Landscrona, I like many was quick to dismiss it as idiots intent on promoting some obscure and objectionable views.
However, the demand for the sacking and non-recruitment of black players and exclusion of gays is part of a serious selection policy proposal, intended to influence and set the agenda at a club with a less than stellar record on integration.
As this year of racial torment in football comes to an end, we are faced with a clear and stark reality. A substantial minority of our game continues to harbour deep seated and unacceptable discriminatory views.
Our Eastern European cousins face a substantial challenge and have for the most part shown little appetite to address a burgeoning social problem. While Western government and sporting bodies have been forced to address and combat discrimination in many institutions, as the influx of racial and sexual minorities broadened, our Eastern cousins have yet to tackle these troubling issues convincingly.
UEFA’s efforts during the European championship earlier this year were laudable and it was hoped that the spotlight on race would have helped spark a public debate.
As we see from the Zenit example, it has, in many quarters created a nasty backlash, fuelled by the growing numbers of black and ethnic minority players transferring to financially wealthy Eastern European enclaves like Russia.
Zenit is the premier Russian team of the moment, despite the pretensions of others. During the offseason it shelled out billions of rubles to recruit two bright young players of ethnic origin, the Brazilian Hulk – Givanildo Vieira de Souza and the Belgium wunderkind Axel Witsel, whose father is from Martinique in the French Caribbean.
The light skinned but discernibly black players now find themselves among the best compensated professionals in the world but also unwittingly at the centre of a dispute within their own club. It has been made abundantly clear, that many of the club’s fans don’t want them, regardless of what they can do with a little white ball.
As Zenit takes a page from their Western cousins and tries to espouse the politically correct view, history and, in fact, truth is against them.
On hearing the manifesto demands, Zenit’s manager Luciano Spalletti distanced himself from the group, which had published an open letter demanding a range of "principles for selection" and preferred criteria for future signings.
"Tolerance for me is the ability to understand and accept differences,” according to the Russian club’s manager. "I can personally assure you that I will do everything I can to help those who seek to explain what tolerance is, and the need to respect other cultures and traditions.
"The team has gathered players from different countries and ethnic groups who work together to achieve a common goal. Their combined efforts bring tangible results."
While Witsel and the Hulk are ethnic minorities, Zenit remains the only Russian club never to have purchased a player from Africa.
Also, it is difficult to forget what Zenit’s former manager Dick Advocaat said in 2008.
“I would be happy to sign anyone, but the fans don't like black players,” according to the former Holland coach. "Quite honestly, I do not understand how they could pay so much attention to skin colour."
Or in fact, another former manager four years earlier.
"I wanted to hire a black player, but I could not," according to Vlastimil Petrela, Zenit's then manager in 2004. "I don't know why, but the management did not want it. Whenever I raised the issue, the answer always was, 'Zenit is not interested.'"
Petrela repeated his concerns in a recent BBC look at the troubled racial history of Russian football and its premier club. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12848838
Tolerance hasn’t always been in evidence in the Zenit squad either. This September the arrival of Hulk and Witsel led to major dressing room unrest.
The Russian club was forced to demote the Russia captain Igor Denisov to the reserve team after he refused to play, issuing an ultimatum to renegotiate his contract in “line with what Hulk was making”. Denisov was joined by star striker Alexander Kersakhov. Neither was allowed to rejoin the first team after making an apology.
Could it have been that the team’s leaders were affronted at the indignity at having their salaries usurped by players of colour and that it was more than just an “ordinary” pay dispute?
To understand the club, one must understand a little about the city itself.
St Petersburg has a troubling record of racial intolerance against black and Asian immigrants. Often in April, on the eve of Adolph Hitler’s birth, Burg skinheads rampage through the streets in celebration, vigilante style looking for racial offenders.
Visit many travel blogs and people of colour are found suspiciously asking about travel concerns. They are “reassured” by indignant Russians that vacationers and other visitors have little to fear, it is immigrants that have the problems.
In fact, the more I researched about this city and history, the more worried I became, especially as St Petersburg is one of the host cities for the 2018 World Cup.
A sparkling New Zenit stadium, a 69,000 capacity mega-structure, is envisaged as a legacy of the games. A lasting mark on society for a club with a determinedly racist element.
A key player in the Russia bid was FIFA exec member Vitaly Mutko, the chairman of Russia’s FIFA 2018 World Cup local organising committee and a former Zenit president. As the club president during Petrela’s regime, it would be interesting to hear his past response to concerns at his club.
I suppose it’s too much to ask that FIFA demand a clear action plan within 90 days and expulsion of the Landscrona affiliates from the Zenit ranks. After all, this really isn’t new ground for Zenit and the city of St Petersburg.
Let us please try to avoid in 2018 those embarrassing scenes of players openly telling family members not to travel to the Ukraine and Russia again, as they did for the European Championship earlier this year.
This issue is one FIFA can and should step into. Pressure must be brought to bear on the Russian Federation to exact a heavy toll on the club. It must be made an example of.
While tolerance is always the objective, we must have a limit.
The Russian club’s fans are openly espousing abhorrent views: "We object to representatives of sexual minorities playing for Zenit.”
Such incitement is matched with incredible justifications of Zenit’s questionable traditions as the preferred norm."We are not racists and for us, the lack of black players at Zenit is only an important tradition, which emphasizes the identity of the club and nothing more.”
There is no place in the game for this. None. The powers that be should and must make that clear and send an unmistakable message to the club and to the city.
Delroy Alexander is the chairman of the Sacred Sports Foundation, a not for profit charity based in St Lucia. He is a seasoned sports administrator and is a former Chicago Tribune senior investigative business reporter and a Pulitzer Prize nominee journalist. Founded by his brother and former Peterborough, Lincoln City and Macclesfield Town manager Keith Alexander, the Sacred Sports Foundation uses sport to work with disadvantaged Caribbean youth. As well as having partnered with the St. Lucia Football Association, the Foundation is the Caribbean arm of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) and has secured important grants from the EU, UNESCO and the Australian government among others. In June 2013, the Foundation will host a major conference, Sport in Black and White, which has been designated the third Sport and the Global South international forum. A call for papers has been issued and can be seen at: www.sacredsportsinc.com/conference. They will be writing regularly on issues of importance to help spark the debate and to be a catalyst for change.