Russian Football’s Image Problem Not Helped by Zenit

The dreadful events in the Dynamo Moscow-Zenit match last weekend were bad enough. The reaction to them has hardly covered the Russian game in glory.

Last weekend the match of the round in the Russian Premier League took a grim turn and had to be abandoned. A flare, thrown by a female Zenit fan who ensured the world’s media sat up and paid notice by the lurid way she smuggled the explosive into the ground, exploded in the face of Dynamo keeper, Anton Shunin.

And it gets worse. Claim and counter-claim muddy the water, and the Russian media don’t help. It’s difficult to know where the truth lies and where sensationalism begins. Depending on whom you believe, Shunin needs a corneal transplant and might lose a significant amount of the sight in one eye, or is due to return to training next week.

But it was Zenit’s reaction that took the biscuit. They were eager to heap the blame on Dynamo, arguing that as hosts they should take responsibility for behaviour in their stadium. They even tried to further influence the decision of what penalty to apply by leaking the notion that they might look to leave the Russian league and relocate to the Ukraine (Really? The stated preferred venue, Sevastopol is a mere 1,315 from St. Peterburg. And Wimbledon fans thought Milton Keynes was a step too far!)

The inevitable decision to award a 3-0 win to Dynamo drew a furious response from Zenit, who immediately announced they would appeal.

Appealing isn’t the word which comes to mind when you think of the image around the club of late though. The issues of racism which the purchase of Axel Witsel and Hulk stirred up at the club hardly portrayed it in a positive light, although at least the club was willing to tackle the issue head-on by signing the duo, which was hardly the picture Dick Advocaat painted when he was their coach four years ago.

Vagner Love claimed recently that Zenit are “the most racist club in Russia” and soon after Hulk’s arrival a fake bomb was sent to the club with a photo of the player on it and “There is no Hulk” written on the back. Yann M’Vila’s Summer move to the club appears to have broken down over the player’s fears about his reception.

Yet despite having once more drawn attention to the negative side of the Russian game, the Shunin incident is not really relevant when it comes to the broader context which has taxed many in the west for the last two years.

The media narrative in terms of Russia is clear. The game is adversely affected by a multitude of social issues bleeding into the stadiums, and therefore is unfit to host the 2018 World Cup. The fact that it winning that right by defeating England is, of course, purely coincidental!

There’s some truth in the narrative, of course. Incidents of racism are well documented in the Russian game, and from the offensive banner displayed by Lokomotiv fans when Peter Odemwingie left them to bananas thrown at any number of players, they’re abhorrent. Watching a CSKA fan pour urine over Anzhi’s Mbark Boussoufa hardly undermines the lazy conclusion that the Russian game’s lawless.

The protestations of Russian officials, who seem to have their heads in the sand as they deny the existence of these issues, only serve to inflame matters. Sports Minister is the worst culprit, drawing scorn with his attempts to deflect blame and vague, content-free promises to sort everything out. He could hardly complain that the incident in Khimki last weekend was an isolated incident when Spartak’s match on the same day saw the thick smoke of flares billow across Volga’s pitch. Yes, that’s Volga Novgorod, where Zenit’s fans set fire to the stand a fortnight ago. There’s a pattern forming here.

Indeed, the flare attack isn’t even the first time this has happened to Dynamo this season! In September they had a Russian Cup tie awarded to them after it was abandoned when Torpedo fans threw flares onto the pitch.

But the complaints that these issues will make Russia an unfit World Cup host depend on your perspective. If the award of the World Cup is seen as a reward, then the argument’s sustainable, but handing it to a nation on that basis would mark a real change from the criteria applied in the past. Exactly how lovely was Argentina’s military junta in the 1970s?

Conversely, you can make the argument that handing the Russians the tournament, and turning the world’s gaze on the issues affecting their game, can only be an agent for positive change. Mutko might bury his head in the sand but there are plenty of people looking to address the issues. And there’s a vast majority of fans, and Russians in general, who reject the deviant behaviour of the mindless.

But the crux of the matter is that all this unpleasantness probably won’t touch the World Cup anyway. With FIFA’s successful efforts to create a state-within-a-state every four years, the games are hermetically sealed anyway with any hint of local colour or culture squeezed out – ask your friendly neighbourhood vuvuzela salesman if you want a testimonial.

But ironically, there might be a positive side effect in 2018. The worst excesses of the Russian game aren’t allowed near the action, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

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