Zenit and Racism's Impossible Question: He Who Hesitates Is Lost

Sergey ZikovSenior Analyst IAugust 12, 2009

Recently, Zenit St. Petersburg has faced a remarkable amount of adversity. The departure of three star players; the firing of the most successful coach in club history; and of course, sitting in seventh place in the Russian Premier League.

But those struggles are to be expected with so many changes in such a short period of time.

Even with the poor performances as of late, there haven't been much better times in history to be a Zenit supporter.

In the last three years, the club has collected four trophies and put St. Petersburg on the European football map for a long time to come.

As Zenit is now a world-famous club, the command has also seen fit to scout and sign high-caliber players from around the world. Since 2000, Zenit has signed players from Portugal, Italy, Argentina, Norway, Slovakia, France, Turkey, Belgium and South Korea.

Not so long ago, that much diversity would have seemed impossible, as the club has historically only fielded Russians or players from a former Soviet Republic.

Several weeks ago, the club made even more progress, when it snatched midfielder Alessandro Rosina from the jaws of several Serie A giants. The diminutive playmaker, hailed as "Rosinaldo," became the first-known Italian to wear the Zenit St. Petersburg kit.

However, the problem of needing new strikers or finding team chemistry in the middle of a season is nothing compared to Zenit's largest problem.

It's such a problem that some supporters don't even recognize that it is one; and that there's nothing wrong with the practice at all.


In the 84 years since the club was established at the Leningrad Metal Works, not one black or dark-skinned player has ever put on a Zenit uniform. Not one.

The modern world today has done it's best to flush out any racism in football, but no matter where it is, there seem to still be incidents with it. Zenit has always had a decent number of extreme right-wing supporters who simply would not allow the club to sign a black player.

"I realized then that in a team where the fans hold right-wing views, it is unrealistic to have players from the Dark Continent," said first-team goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev in March, after the club gave Ghanaian forward Baffour Gyan a tryout. "For me personally, the color of his skin, the amount of tattoos, pierced ears, it makes no difference to me."

Malafeev also recalled that back in 2002, he had a nasty encounter with fans at practice, where some supporters shouted horrendous things as several players gave anti-racism speeches. The goalkeeper remembers how the situation nearly turned into a brawl.

Since then, many other players have spoke out, most recently when Igor Semshov was promoting "Покажи красную карточку расизму" or "Show Racism the Red Card," to the city of St. Petersburg.

On the verge of a World Cup berth as well, some Russians need the understanding that racism is not acceptable under any circumstances.

Even the club's front office wants the 84-year-old trend to be snapped. 

When Gyan was given a tryout at the beginning of the year, it was only a start. Command has now given serious considerations to RC Lens' Ivorian striker Aruna Dindane and more recently, Mario Balotelli of Internazionale.

Although it is unlikely that either find their way to St. Petersburg, the club has taken the right steps toward erasing the "problem."

Several critics have recently spoken out, even going as far to say that Zenit "can not achieve higher European success without a dark-skinned player."

There is no denying that many African footballers possess tremendous speed, acceleration, and flair; three things missing from the Sky Blues since Andrei Arshavin left for Arsenal. But while having African players by itself does not ensure victories, closing the doors to the entire African continent is surely not a help either.

Former captain Anatoliy Tymoschuk also voiced his opinions while at the club, during the period when command was interested in Gyan.

"We must not forget to show respect to players. It is of no importance what race the player is, what is important is what he can do on the pitch. We should show the utmost courtesy to people who live and play side-by-side with us," he said at a convention in Warsaw.

So what better time to answer the "impossible question?"

As the ancient proverb says, he who hesitates is truly lost.

While Zenit has achieved monumental success in the past several years, the only way to become a true European power is by fielding a diverse squad with many players of different skills.

When the club opened its doors to Italy, there suddenly became a handful of Italian fans of Alessandro Rosina who were interested in how Zenit performed. The same principle applied when the club inked two Portuguese players.

Zenit is scheduled to open a brand-new, world-class arena in 2011. The only true way to properly commence play at the 62,000 seat facility would be to field a world-class squad as well.

Rid us of the black spot.

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