Zenit and Racism – Broken Dreams for Brian Idowu01 May 2015

Guestblog: PhDcandidateatKing’sCollegeLondonandeditorofFUTBOLGRAD ManuelVethlooksatracisminRussianfootballthroughthestoryofAmkarPermRussiandefenderBrianIdowu.

Brian Idowu had a dream to one day play for the first team of his boyhood club Zenit St. Petersburg. The defender, who was born in Russia but is of Nigerian decent, has had his path to Zenit’s first team blocked because of the colour of his skin.

“Playing for Zenit was always my goal. But as time passed, it didn’t go further than training with the youth team.

“Then it was hinted that with this colour of skin the path to the main team was unfeasible because of the fans who do not like black players.” Lenta.ru quoted the 22-year-old defender.

Idowu left Zenit in 2010, when he was 18, without playing a game for the first team. Five years after joining his current club Amkar Perm, the former Zenit youth player accused the St Petersburg club of discrimination during an interview to the Amkar Perm website. The story first broke out last month.

In the interview Idowu added that when he was 12 and working as a ball boy at a Zenit game, he heard monkey chants from fans of the club directed at him and also highlighted the difficulties of a black person growing up in St. Petersburg.

“In high school, I did not often think about those issues [racism]. But when I got older I learned about skinheads but I did not often come across with them.

“One day, though, in the Metro my friend spotted a group of them and shouted at me ‘Run!’. My parents were always worried about this and I was not able to move around in the city [St. Petersburg] freely.”

The issue of racism within St. Petersburg’s fan scene has been a well-covered story. In 2012, for example, the Zenit fan group Landscrona published a manifesto demanding the club field an all-white, heterosexual team. It added that “dark-skinned players are all but forced down Zenit’s throat now, which only brings out a negative reaction” and said gay players were “unworthy of our great city.”

The club responded by saying “we make our player selections without any limitation regarding origin, religion or skin colour”, but did not comment on the their hiring policy in regards to players’ sexual orientation – which is not surprising given Russia’s stance on LGBTQ rights.

The manifesto came in the wake of the signing of two black players in 2012 – the Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel and the Brazilian striker Hulk. Both players are now well established in the main squad, but just last month Hulk was again the target of monkey chants at an away game, this time at the encounter against Torpedo Moscow.

As a report by farenet.org highlights, racism in Russian football has been endemic with 99 incidents of racism reported in Russian football in 2014 alone. With the 2018 World Cup only three years away the Russian Football Union (RFS) has created a new office known as the Anti-Racism Inspector, which is supposed to find measures to combat racism in the country’s football.

We will never know if Idowu was indeed talented enough to make it at Zenit. However, the influence of Zenit’s fans and the club’s staff view together never gave Idowu a real chance to strap on his boots for his beloved hometown club, not because of his lack of ability, but because of the colour of his skin.

Brian Idowu