Zenit St. Petersburg fans: We're not racist, but...
By Bradley King
With Chelsea lurking around him for some time, Hulk's eventual move to Russia last summer came as a shock to many. Zenit St. Petersburg, the country's champions, splashed out £64m on a double deal which included the Brazilian along with Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel. It was the first steps of the club's attempt to establish themselves not only as the premier national force, but also as continental contenders.
Flash forward six months and all has not quite gone to plan. Zenit lie third in Russia's top tier and crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage - mainly due to their humblings against Malaga and Anderlecht in Spain and Belgium, respectively.
The summer's two big recruits are falling short of inspiring the team - particularly Hulk who has fallen out with the club's coach, Luciano Spalletti, casting doubt over his future in the east of Europe.
But if Zenit fan group Landscrona had anything to do with it, the ex-Porto forward wouldn't be at the club in the first place. This week, Landscrona released a 'manifesto' outlining their vision for the future of their beloved club, a vision which will "uphold tradition", apparently.
"We're not racists, but," begins the statement, ominously, "we see the absence of black players at Zenit as an important tradition.
"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 cultural background as these nations."
As well as black players like Hulk and Witsel, that would also seemingly ban Portuguese defender Bruno Alves too - a key component of the club's recent success. The statement goes on to suggest that homosexual players are "unworthy of our great city [St. Petersburg].
St. Petersburg is a notoriously right-wing city but racial and sexual discrimination are not confined to the north-west of the country. In 2010, Lokomotiv Moscow fans celebrated Nigerian Peter Odemwingie's departure by unfurling a banner which read, "Thank you West Brom" and was accompanied by a banana - an obvious racial slur.
This is just one example but there are many more. Racism and other forms of intolerance are widespread.
In fairness, Zenit have rejected Landscrona's proposals, with coach Spalletti calling the sentiments "stupid" while director of sports, Dietmar Beiersdorfer insisted recruitment was not constrained by limitations with regards to skin colour or sexuality.
But the club stopped short of completely condemning the supporters' views. The fact is that Landscrona reflect the views of a large portion of Zenit fans and to denounce such vile opinions would alienate much of their widespread fan base.
As we continue to approach the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in the country, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend FIFA's wisdom in awarding a major tournament to Russia. With large demographics of the population holding bigoted views, what will be the outcome when Ghana roll into St. Petersburg for a group stage match against Mexico?
There is a widespread ignorance in Russia over diversity and that is unlikely to change in six years. Landscrona may partially get their wish in the short term if Hulk leaves for pastures new, as has been suggested.
But Zenit fans, and ignorant Russian football supporters in general, will need to open their minds and shun their small-mindedness if, one day, they are to get their wish of a continentally competitive Zenit and a globally-respected Russian football scene.