Richard van Poortvliet: Time is long overdue for Zenit to clean out its dark side

St Petersburg is the undoubted tourist capital of Russia. Millions flock to the city every year to witness the Hermitage and the wonderful cultural sites that it has to offer. However, when talking about football the hospitality is less than welcoming.

I lived in St Petersburg for a year whilst studying Russian and Zenit has a particular affiliation in my heart, despite living in Moscow for the past eight years. I remember the days under Vlastimil Petrzela, when the club, with a young Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov were particularly pleasing on the eye. The free flowing football, the lack of fear in their play – all this made Zenit one of the most attractive sides to follow in the early years of the millennium.

However, there is a darker side to the football club, a club that has never signed a black player in their history. The club’s largest fan group ‘Landscrona’ issued a statement almost exactly a year ago stating black players are “forced down Zenit’s throat” and that gay players are “unworthy of our great city”. This is a draconian view from a club wishing to be a force within European football. Whilst in charge of the reigning Russian Premier League champions, Dick 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.

I am always quick to try and defend Russian football from over zealous critics from abroad. Despite my admiration for Zenit from my youth, even my tolerance has reached its tipping point. The policy of the club’s management not to sign black players is incredibly short sighted and they are being held hostage by the team’s notorious group of ultras.

Despite falling 2-0 behind to AC Milan last year in the UEFA Champions League within the first 30 minutes, Zenit’s fans continued to follow their club with undoubted devotion. The chants were unrelenting. While there is no questioning Zenit’s support of their team, their ultras have built up a reputation over the last decade of being amongst the worst offending supporters in Europe, for their racist views and love of violence.

The first incident to catch the eye was Zenit’s UEFA Cup clash with Marseille in 2008, on their way to winning the competition. The French side’s defender Ronald Zubar complained of racist chants directed against him and black teammates Charles Kabore and Andre Ayew – the club from Russia’s second city were later fined €37,000 by UEFA.

That incident was just the tip of the iceberg and since then Zenit’s ‘fans’ have been involved in numerous unsavory incidents, such as waving a banana at legendry Brazilian left back, Roberto Carlos, who was playing for Anzhi Makhachkala at the time, to throwing a flare, which hit Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper, Anton Shunin. This led to the game being abandoned, while Dynamo were awarded an automatic 3-0 victory and Zenit had to play two home games behind closed doors. The unruly behaviour during Zenit’s 4-1 defeat at Austria Vienna last week has finally stung UEFA into action to take sanctions against the club, who were found guilty of displaying a racist banner, while a number of flares were thrown. The reigning Russian champions will now have part of their stadium closed for the visit of Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Champions League in February. The sectors, which have been closed (12,13,14 and 15), are where the clubs ultras congregate.

What has been refreshing is the reaction of Zenit. Unlike Spartak Moscow who tried to blame everyone but themselves for the unveiling of a Nazi flag by their ‘fans’ during a Russian Cup game at Shinnik Yaroslavl, Zenit have finally had enough of their unruly supporters. The club released a statement: “Zenit strongly condemns the acts of hooliganism which nearly abandoned the Champions League match between our club and Austria Vienna,” and mentioned that tough measures will be taken against the perpetrators. Meanwhile, head coach Luciano Spalletti sees the troublemakers as “enemies” and also said they should “stay away from football grounds”.

Zenit’s problems with their fans are so deep-seated that it is going to take a long time for the club to be able to sort out this problem. However, it is encouraging that they are finally starting to take these incidents seriously and try and deal with the ultras, who have given the club one of the worst reputations in Europe.

Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.