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The Reds face a tricky game in St Petersburg on Thursday evening in a game that has already been swamped with talk of off-field problems

COMMENT
By Jay Jaffa

It says a lot about the state of Russian football that the near entirety of the build-up to Liverpool’s Europa League match against Zenit St Petersburg has been dominated by fears of racism embroiling the first leg.

Sponsored by Gazprom, Zenit are Russia's most wealthy club. Unfortunately, due to a combination of racist incidents and a fans' manifesto published last year outlining their hopes for player recruitment, some argue that they are also the country's most racist club.

It has prompted Liverpool to caution their travelling supporters about their behaviour towards the local police, whilst Brendan Rodgers admitted concern for his players in Wednesday's press conference.

“I haven't spoken directly to the players about it [racism], but we still have a few meetings before the game, so I will make reference to it because we have some who it could affect,” he explained.

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Raheem Sterling, one of a number of black players in Liverpool's squad, was part of the England Under-21 team that were awfully treated in the European Championship playoff in Serbia back in October. Yet Rodgers is adamant the spectre of racism should not affect the Reds' plans for the game, adding: “I didn't think of it too much because they want to play and some are young players progressing.”

Liverpool Managing Director Ian Ayre also told the club's official website that the threat of racism was a “major concern for us,” while Earl Barrett, ambassador for Kick It Out, told Goal.com that the referee should take the players off the field if they are subjected to racist chanting. It all adds up to create an uneasy atmosphere, even before a ball has been kicked.

Evgeny Gusev, a Zenit spokesman offered their view on how to counteract racism, though it was footnoted by a warning: "[Tackling racism] is not just the work of the club but of the legal authorities, the police and politicians. We work hard but we cannot be insured against individual cases."  

The idea that a minority are to blame is not without foundation and should be recognised – Russian football has a history of racism, not least in the colours of the St Petersburg outfit. In 2011, a Zenit fan handed Roberto Carlos, the former Brazil left-back, and coach at Anzhi Makhachkala, a banana. A similar incident occurred in 2008 in a Uefa Cup tie with Marseille, for which the club was fined £32,000 by Uefa.

And the Landskrona manifesto that was keen to highlight the importance of keeping a St Petersburg core, has been attributed to a minority of Zenit fans, rather than representative of the club – an important distinction. Published in December, and titled “Selection-12”, it has been used as a stick to beat the club with, proof that it is racist to the core.

Certain statements do nothing to help the image of Zenit, or Russian football, which lest we forget must successfully host the 2018 World Cup. And Landskrona were widely condemned for stating: "We see the absence of black players at Zenit as an important tradition that keeps the club's identity. Thanks to this tradition, the club has managed to keep its own face in the football world."

And though the manifesto also makes clear that the club is “against representatives of sexual minorities playing for Zenit,” it must also be pointed out that statements highlighting the value of players committing to the club, the city and the importance of retaining a club identity would draw empathy from a host of clubs around the world. Yet for all the positive sentiments, it was tarnished by the “archaic” views Zenit distanced themselves from.

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It all makes for grim reading, especially given the progress made in the last 20 years in England. Western Europe tends to think of itself as tolerant to multicultural diversity and in some ways that helps explain the media focus on, and expectancy of, a problematic encounter on Thursday evening.

However, Russian authorities remain keen to display a firm stance and with the eyes of Uefa and the European media centred on Zenit's hosting of Liverpool, it is an opportunity for the nation to show that they are ready to not only combat racism, but to show that they can host the world's foremost international tournament in five years without incident.

It is unquestionably a hard ask when you assess the historical incidents that have, and continue to plague Russian football. And for all the measures employed by Liverpool and Zenit ahead of the game, it would be wholly surprising to see the game pass without incident.

However, any fears must be tempered by the progress the club has made. Manager Luciano Spalletti insisted that he has not been restricted in the transfer market, and his £64m acquisition of Hulk, a Brazilian, and Axel Witsel, whose father is of French-Martinique descent, indicate that point. Indeed, Hulk, told in December of the warmth of the home support since his summer arrival.

It is a far cry from the days of Dick Advocaat, who insisted that he: "Would be happy to sign anyone, but the fans don’t like black players."

It may not be tasteful to the fans to employ footballers from unfamiliar and far flung backgrounds, but they are welcomed and embraced by the supporters once they don the sky blue shirts of Zenit.

However it is those in red shirts who should expect to receive invective in St Petersburg, leaving the rest to hope it pours from the stands in the form of football “banter” rather than racism.

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