FC Zenit’s biggest disadvantage

Saint Petersburg will face Borussia Dortmund with few fans in the last-16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.

    Zenit fans threatened that they would not permit non-white or gay players from being signed [Getty Images]
    Zenit fans threatened that they would not permit non-white or gay players from being signed [Getty Images]

    As the knockout rounds begins in the Champions League, Zenit Saint Petersburg will take on Borussia Dortmund at the Petrovsky stadium watched by only a few spectators.

    This tough stance is the result of violent behaviour of some of FC Zenit’s Ultras fans who, during the 4-1 defeat by Austria Vienna, provoked a fight with the local fans and law enforcement officials. The game was close to being called off when a number of flares were thrown from the visiting Russian supporters into the crowd below.

    Macedonian referee Aleksandar Stavrev had no alternative but to stop the game for a few minutes in order to calm the Zenit fans.

    The St Petersburg club publically condemned the behaviour and upheld UEFA’s decision to disqualify sections of supporters during the next Champions League round at Petrovsky stadium. Zenit’s Director General Maxim Mitrofanov thinks that UEFA has made the right decision.

    “Such behaviour has nothing to do with football," Mitrofanov told Al Jazeera. 

    "Petrovsky stadium in St Petersburg is now partially disqualified; four fan enclosures will be closed. For regular supporters it will not be easy to enter the stadium. We should respect UEFA’s orders. I just hope that our fans in the end will cheer for the club but not against it." 

    More Zenit trouble

    Zenit fans have frequently been in trouble not only during the matches but also off the field.

    A year ago, just when football authorities round the world were striving to eradicate homophobia and racism, Zenit fans wrote an open letter threatening the club that they would not permit managers to ever sign non-white or gay players in the team.

    For many years Zenit has been the only football club in the Russian Championship never to sign an African player, fearing racial disturbance from the club’s fans.   

    Radical fans in St Petersburg are a major headache for the football authorities trying to build a positive image of Russia ahead of the World Cup taking place in the country in 2018, but so far they have been losing the fight.

    “We must recognise the fact that we cannot control the behaviour of fans without backing from the state," Pavel Pivovarov, Deputy head of FC Zenit, said. "

    This problem requires the support of the whole football community and a legal frame-work. England should be an example for us as without the help of the state it is impossible to keep things in order."

    We must recognise the fact that we cannot control the behaviour of fans without backing from the state.

    Pavel Pivovarov, Deputy head of FC Zenit

    On the other side of the conflict are the fans that have supported their team under any circumstances.

    Alex, one of the leaders of the co-called Landscrona group (the largest Zenit fan group) said in an interview with Al Jazeera that he is disappointed with the lack of support from the club.

    “It is really upsetting and concerning the way the club is dealing with the team’s most devoted supporters.

    "As Zenit fans we strongly condemn the people who threw flares into the family section of Austrian supporters in the final group-stage match of the Champions League in Vienna. Such actions only discredit the whole fan movement and can’t be justified. However I don’t think it is fair to punish all the fans for the actions of a particular few people.

    “It is disgraceful that the club calls us enemies and don’t even bother to file a protest against the UEFA decision. Zenit fans will not support the team during the important Champions League match in St Petersburg. I know that many of us won’t even go to the game. It will be the first time for Zenit to play an important match at home and before an empty stadium."

    Regardless of the endless arguments between fans and officials, it is the team itself which needs that extra push from its supporters to win an important game against Bundesliga heavyweights Borussia Dortmund.

    In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Zenit’s Portuguese midfielder Danny said that he believes it will be hard for the team to succeed against the strong Borussia team without the regular motivation from the St Petersburg fans.

    “Zenit is very lucky because the team has a lot of supporters. They follow us anywhere we go, no matter if we play in Russia or abroad. Champions League or Europa League, everywhere we receive their support. It’s an amazing feeling when they are with us, they motivate us and help a lot, though I have to agree, sometimes they make bad choices and the club is held to account.

    “However, the fans are really important. They make the difference for the team and it will be difficult to play an important game against Borussia without them behind us but we will still be doing everything we can to get victory for our devoted supporters and for Saint Petersburg."

    Anna Lidster is a freelance journalist for Al Jazeera English. You can follow her on Twitter @AShlyakhtenko.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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