Thursday, 21 October 2010

Zenit fans stand alongside their Serb "brothers"

A butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and a storm rises in California. Or perhaps that should be: a Serbian man dons a balaclava in Genoa, and four Hajduk Split supporters are beaten up in St Petersburg.

Eastern European politics is an immensely complex arena. Events in Russia this week have provided a nice illustration of this point. Hajduk Split fans have travelled to St Petersburg for a Europa League group match against Zenit St Petersburg.

On Wednesday evening there was a stand-off at the Hotel Dostoevsky, where many of the Hajduk fans were staying. Some fifty men wearing balaclavas entered the building and began to attack the supporters with chairs. Four sustained head injuries and were hospitalised.

St Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko - who has been considered for some time as a natural successor to the Presidency of the Russian Federation - described the attackers as hooligans and vowed to prosecute those responsible.

In response, one Zenit fan contacted newspaper Sovetsky Sport to give his side of events. Essentially, this was much more than football-related violence - this was a defence of Orthodox Slavs (in Serbia as well as Russia) from their "enemies" in largely Catholic Croatia.

The connections between Serbia and Russia run deep. Russia's attempt to defend Serbian independence from the Habsburgs precipitated World War I. Russia's refusal to acknowledge the independence of Kosovo stems to a large degree from sympathy with the Serbs.

Now, if the statement of one Zenit fan is anything to go by at least, this political alignment has found new expression in the footballing arena. One thing's for sure - there will be fireworks at Zenit's Petrovsky Stadium on Thursday night.

The Zenit fan's statement in full:

Let's not evaluate what happened as typical hooliganism. Rather, it is a pre-emptive strike. These Hajduk fans are far from angels, they belong to one of the most serious "firms" in Eastern Europe - Torsida 57. The majority of those 300 fans who have flown to St Petersburg are by no means rich tourists, who have come to support their team and witness the beauty of St Petersburg. They are pretty tough guys who won't back down from a fight.
You don't know what Croatian fans did in Athens during their match with AEK? They came to Greece in even greater numbers - around a thousand people. And, armed with belts, they attacked the Greek police, and ejected them from the stands. Basically, the fight in "Hotel Dostoevsky" is no surprise - what happened could have been predicted in advance. And the Croats were ready for what happened.

As always the reasons are political. Serbs are our brothers, Croats - for well-known reasons - hate them. Given that we are friends with Serbian fans, Croats consider us enemies too. Also, we have our own reasons for being antagonistic towards them. Go on the internet and have a look how their Ultras talk about our churches, our religion. The bad language in these statements are typical. By the way, if you go to a match in Split, I advise you not to speak in Russian or carry scarves or flags which give you away as a Russian. That would be dangerous.

On the bodies of those injured Croatian fans we took away two banners, one of which reads "Torsida Biograd". I hardly need to explain what it means to take away a trophy - a scarf or a banner - from a group of opponents...Now on Croatian websites fans write that they "spit on this banner". Last year they lost one of them, but they just made a new one. But it's doubtful that they'll resolve the situation so simply...
There will be a continuation, though I'm not sure exactly what. I think the Croatian fans will show themselves for what they are. I can't even suggest what exactly we should be expecting. But they will definitely actively "light the touchpaper" in the away end. It's definitely possible that there will be some kind of abuse or provocation from the away end.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

European Football Special: Podcast Episode 2

Question: Name a podcast which crams into an hour subjects as disparate as the history of the Russian city of Samara (1917-91), the buying policy of Stade Rennais, the sporting allegiances of Mainz's Lewis Holtby and the origins of the Serbian ultra-nationalist three-finger salute.

Answer: The European Football Special - featuring in no particular order Chris Nee, Jonathan Fadugba, Graham Sibley, Chris Oakley, Terry Duffelen and myself. Episode 2 is NOW.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Vladimir Abramov: The most provocative football interview ever?

Clicking through the Russian press as I always do on a morning, my eyes were drawn to a headline on the site "In Russia they really don't like black people". It concerned an interview given by Russian football agent Vladimir Abramov in which he talks about a range of subjects, from his profession to his clients, and also dwells on the subject of black players in Russia.

It's an interview that seriously makes the mind boggle in its crassness.

People in the UK are these days no strangers to Russia's racism problem, now that Peter Odemwingie and the infamous banana banner have become headline news. I must admit I'm a little cynical about the treatment of the subject in the British press, keen as they are to recoup ground after nearly destroying England's bid for the 2018 World Cup with the sting on Lord Triesman.

But the Abramov interview really does cut through the crap and delivers, on a silver platter no less, examples of the kinds of attitudes which I fear are rather prevalent in Russia. Below are the relevant excerpts - health warning included: readers may be consumed with rage.

Q: Is what happened with the career of Peter Odemwingie a shame for Russian football? He earned a lot of money here over three years but played badly. As soon a he leaves for England he pulled himself together and became Premier League player of the month.

Abramov: Peter is a very professional and responsible guy. Everything was easy with Peter. In contrast to other Nigerians. They are very insolent, headstrong, black nationalism is evident in them. When there are more than three Nigerians watch out: they aren't afraid of anyone. Korea has also shed tears over them. In Korea there were never drug dealers, nothing like that. They started to invite athletes, Nigerian agents appeared, drugs appeared in the city centre streets and at the end of it all - AIDS.

...Peter Odemwingie is a very well educated and englightened guy, he speaks three languages, including Russian like you and I. Ask him a question - he answers. The guy speaks openly about what's happening in our country and we don't like it. The guy says: in Russia they don't like black people. It's clear we really don't like black people! No, we say we are white and fluffy. But we are not! Besides, one coach brought him [Odemwingie] and then others came - they changed the coach three times. By the way, what position did he play under Yury Pavlovich [Semin - Lokomotiv Moscow coach]?

On the wing.

Hmmm. And in England where does he play? Centre-forward.

You've said that many footballers prefer not to have anything to do with dark-skinned players. Is that because they discredit themselves?

No, wrong. Black people sometimes behave in a more orderly fashion than whites. The thing is that from my point of view, the Russian people are not happy to see a black-skinned footballer doing his national dance after scoring a goal, and so they abuse him with all sorts of unpleasant words. And Odemwingie says: they draw a banana that hurts our feelings. Does it happen? It happens. Our authorities say: we must punish the clubs. Wrong. Punish for what? Let's punish our people for drinking and smoking. Let's put people everywhere with sticks who, when they see a guy with a cigarette, they smack him on the head. What, is he going to stop smoking? Dark-skinned people - they're good, normal people, but we aren't ready for that yet. If our authorities see that our people are ready to accept black footballers like they do in Europe, I will be more cautious about this issue. But you shouldn't bring into your team more than one dark-skinned footballer. When there's more of them they behave more aggressively and alienate themselves. If you bring in a dark-skinned person, watch how the public react to it.

Jerry-Christian Tchouissé [a Cameroonian who played in Russia for nearly a decade] spoke of the reasons which prevented him from playing for Russia in an interview with Do you believe that 10 years on Welliton could be called up?

I don't. We have a lot of idiots in our country. And I believe that there are intelligent people who would allow a footballer for our national team to be black - like they did in Poland, for example. We have a great country. When does a country become "great"? More than anything, when it has a big population. We have 150 million inhabitants. If we had 150,000 like somewhere like the Faroe Islands, then there would be a problem and we would have to invite black players. We have a lot of different nationalities. Why do we have to take Welliton? He wouldn't have ever played for us if Brazil had called him up. He would have turned his nose up at us, he wouldn't have needed our country, wouldn't have loved it. And he wouldn't have a reason to love it. He will only play for our country for money. Why do we need that? Yes, in the world there's a tendency to call up foreigners to national teams. But a great nation doesn't do these sort of things. Great nations have enough of their own.

Is France not a great nation?

The French are not a great nation. There are only 20-30 million French. Young people and their girlfriends prefer to live in expectation that when their grandparents die they will inherit their flats, sell them for a few million and continue to do nothing. They don't study, they don't want to work. In France they don't even have people to pick grapes! One Frenchman who I respect a lot came to visit me. When I talked with him he lowered his eyes - he's ashamed. Of the French national team, in which black players play. How did you like the situation, where last year the French came to play in Lithuania and saw the banner "Welcome to Europe?" (laughs). They wrote correctly: here come the French team, who have no relationship whatsoever to Europe.

I fear many would consider that racism.

Once again: I lived for five years in Africa. I am very respectful towards black people. Among them are very good people who I have made friends with and remain so. They are clever, orderly people. In America among black people there are very interesting people...but our country isn't ready. We don't understand it. We have 90% of our population who have never been outside Russia.

You consider yourself an offensive expert. You're not afraid to tell the truth.

If telling the truth means being offensive, that's the way it is.

How do you live by this idea?

For me one of the greatest pleasures in life, and which I consider to be the most important achievements of democracy, is the ability to say what you think. When I say what I don't think I have become an animal. I don't like to say stupid things. If I'm talking rubbish, I apologise.

And when was the last time you apologised?


I wonder if Abramov thinks it might be time to apologise now...