Racism Fear Hangs Over Zenit Fixture

The threat of racist attacks on Liverpool players and fans has prompted Ian Ayre to contact UEFA for assurances ahead of Thursday’s game in Moscow.

Ian Ayre has today spoken about the club’s concerns regarding the potential for racist incidents involving Zenit St Petersburg’s fans. Ayre confirmed that Liverpool have contacted UEFA “to make our feelings clear ahead of the game and hope that we get an adequate response and adequate support on the night.”

Shortly before the draw for the last 32 paired Zenit with Liverpool, the Zenit fan group Landscrona released their “Selection 12 Manifesto” on their website. This document, released with the intention of stating the fans’ views on transfer policy, caused widespread condemnation across Russian football and from within the Zenit management itself.

Zenit’s owners, the Russian state owned energy giant Gazprom, had bankrolled the £64 million purchase of Hulk and Axel Witsel (both of mixed race origin) from Porto in the summer of 2012. Rather than celebrate the investment and the ambition of the club, Landscrona saw the purchases as a watering down of their ethnic identity. The ill feeling was exacerbated by unrest within the dressing room at the amounts paid to the new arrivals. Zenit veteran Igor Denisov was suspended after complaining that Hulk and Witsel were not worth salaries “three times as much” as Russian players.

And so against the backdrop of discontent the “manifesto” was published in anticipation of the impending transfer window. It stated:

“For us, the absence of black players in Zenit is an important tradition and nothing more. As the most northern club among the big European cities, we have never been mentally connected with Africa as well as South America, Australia and Oceania. We have absolutely nothing against the people of these and any other continent. But now black players are being imposed on Zenit almost by force. We only want players from other brotherly Slav nations, such as Ukraine and Belarus as well as from the Baltic States and Scandinavia. We have the same mentality and historical and cultural background as these nations.”

In addition to the position on ethnic minorities the statement went on to reject the idea of signing any gay players saying “we stand against the representatives of sexual minorities playing for Zenit.

In the face of condemnation from the club and in particular the manager Luciano Spalletti, Landscrona sought to clarify their position by likening their policy to the “Basques only” stance of Athletic Bilbao. However, this backtrack compounded the issue by effectively listing an order of preference for the ethnic origins of future Zenit signings with local born players at the top followed by other Russians, northern Europeans and “Slavic nationals”, southern Europeans and Africans and others last.

The suggestion that Landscrona were misunderstood feels even more unlikely given the history of problems surrounding the club. Yann M’Vila had reportedly received death threats when a transfer to Zenit had been proposed. Vagner Love, Christopher Samba and Roberto Carlos have all been the victim of racial incidents involving Zenit. Former Zenit manager Dick Advocaat, who won the UEFA cup with Zenit in 2008, has said that he did not sign black players for the club as the fans would not like it.

As a result of the winter break in Russia, the game on Thursday night will be Zenit’s first match since the uproar. It remains to be seen how the Zenit fans will react to the condemnation they have received. However, it is fair to say that Liverpool are anticipating problems and Ian Ayre’s attempt to meet the issues head on would seem to be the correct approach.

Off the pitch, Liverpool’s four previous visits to Russia have gone off without any significant incidents. I travelled to Moscow in 2002 for the Champions League match against Spartak and found it to be well organised and well policed. In fact, the local fans seemed to be surprised (and even a little disappointed) at how well behaved our fans were.

The problems, if any, are likely to be targeted towards the pitch. Liverpool will travel with at least 3 black players in the squad and, in all likelihood, Andre Wisdom and Raheem Sterling will both start. Recent high profile incidents of racism in Serbia and Italy have put the issue in the spotlight. By commenting now, Ayre has put the ball in UEFA’s court and hopefully they will ensure our players’ and fans’ safety.

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