"I'm not racist but…"
Whenever one hears or reads those words, there's an inward cringe because a potentially very offensive message is about to come forth. In the case of Russian football club Zenit St. Petersburg's letter from it's largest fan union, Landscrona, the message was long, it was emphatic, and it made no apologies for its content.
"We're not racists but we see the absence of black players at Zenit as an important tradition. It would allow Zenit to maintain the national identity of the club, which is the symbol of St Petersburg."
In the paragraphs before this statement, Landscrona describes their ideal team composition: one with very particular Eastern European roots, preferably composed of players from St. Petersburg and Leningrad and then other Eastern European regions, THEN the rest of Europe, but only if desperate. They're even willing to go for a Latin American player but that's an absolute last resort. The fan group also demands to be disassociated from any players who are gay or are "representative of sexual minorities", players who drink or smoke, or players who are often sold to different clubs (though many times this is done against the player's will).
So who are they, exactly? Who is Zenit St. Petersburg?
In the letter Landscrona describe an idealized club that doesn't resemble the wealthy and winning clubs like the specifically named Manchester City or Arsenal. The fans' group is requesting that Zenit St. Petersburg represent the city where they are from, and respect the working class roots of the people they name as the fans. To this particular (and large) fan group, Zenit St. Petersburg represents themselves, and they cannot see themselves represented by anyone of a different race, an unfamiliar nationality, or a man who doesn't sleep with a woman in his bed at night. The fan's group also asks for wage ceilings for young players, presumably so they don't grow into the "Hollywood" mentality they sneer at several times at the beginning of the letter.
Should we mock and shame this fan's group for expressing their desires to the people who run their club? Their desires may seem antiquated, racist and homophobic to a wider world, but football clubs are born out of the places where they reside, and part of the joy of football is in the traditions long held by supporters. Having never visited St. Petersburg, I cannot attest to their traditions, and would hope they do not extend to distaste for people of other nationalities, lifestyles, or sexualities.
A club with a rich history can reflect the area that it's from while still accepting players (and supporters) of different nationalities. Liverpool, despite having its ownership woes, still has a loyal and fervent fan base, and scouse speaking supporters chattering and chanting away in Kop End. On the other hand, the world's oldest football club, England's Sheffield FC -founded in 1857, is seven leagues below Liverpool in the Northern Premier League Division One South, and boasts just one "foreign player"- Dan Williams, from Wales on it's team website. Is Sheffield FC "more authentic" than Liverpool? Are the supporters more pure or passionate? How can one really equate such a thing?
The Zenit St. Petersburg's press office was quick to distance itself from this supporters' union's public requests telling CNN via email:
"FC Zenit has always been distinguished by its tolerant approach to players of various nationalities and confessions, and has always had diversity in its side. Furthermore, our club has millions of fans from all continents of the world. St. Petersburg is an open city which historically has united various cultures.
Zenit invites players to the team exclusively thanks to their sporting qualities and achievements, not based on their nationality or skin color. The club’s policy is aimed at development and integration into the world football community. We do not support archaic values.
We continue to be sure that fighting all manifestations of intolerance is the only principle for development of our club, football, and sports as a whole in the world. "
The club administrators call the demands of their largest fan group "archaic" and the fan group itself asks, "Let us be who we are."
Who are you, Zenit St. Petersburg? Do you want to play football with the rest of the world, or would you rather only play amongst your own people in and on your own lands? The lines between sport and culture are often crossed, and this fan group's carefully stated requests for their club to be as Eastern European and "pure" as possible are an example of a sociological disconnection between a club and the people in the stands.
Kim Newsome is a Contributor at Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.