Zenit St Petersburg are now unlikely to win the Russian Premier League. In light of the weekend’s events, those simple words will delight a significant portion of football fans, and not just those with a particular interest in the Russian game.
On paper, Zenit should win the title. They have the greatest resources, the most high-profile manager with the best CV, and a squad of players which outstrips any boasted by their rivals. They are also one of the best-supported clubs in the competition, a statistic which helps to justify the extortionate cost of a new stadium. However, a small minority of those fans have proven themselves, on numerous occasions, to be less interested in football than violence, and have disgraced ‘their’ club in the process.
Last season, when playing away at Dinamo in November, Zenit were eventually forced to forfeit the match after fans threw flares onto the field, one of which temporarily blinded the Dinamo goalkeeper Anton Shunin. Zenit refused to accept that they were at fault, pursuing a lengthy legal battle which ultimately failed, leading to the Gazprom-backed plans for a Russo-Ukrainian combined league. Had Zenit overturned their 1-0 on the day to win, the three additional points would have won them the league.
On Sunday, this time at home to Dinamo, Andre Villas-Boas’ men found themselves throwing away the chance to take the league lead into the final day of the side, going 3-1 and then 4-2 down to a Dinamo side in full flow. Despite Alexander Kerzhakov pulling a goal back with a spectacular volley, with around five minutes remaining, some Zenit fans took it upon themselves to force the issue, invading the field of play and forcing the game to be abandoned. To Villas-Boas’ credit, he attempted to ward fans away from players, but one particular ‘supporter’ managed to attack Dinamo’s Vladimir Granat from behind as the defender left the field, with reports of concussion and broken bones following. Thankfully, Granat – who was named in Fabio Capello’s 30-men preliminary World Cup squad – has since been medically cleared. Another attack, on Zenit’s Venezuelan forward Solomon Rondon, was also reported.
Combined with a small but vocal fan group which has resisted the club’s efforts to sign black players in the past, it is little wonder that Zenit – Russia’s most successful club in European competitions since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its most high-profile international representative – are seen as something of a black mark on the Russian game. Zenit are not the sole offenders – swastikas were seen in the Spartak end at a cup tie in Yaroslavl, and teams are regularly fined for pyrotechnics – but with the World Cup looming in 2018, Russia’s image problem is not being helped by the actions of the ‘ultras,’ who use the label to hide their violent hooliganism.
Unfortunately, due to Lokomotiv’s 2-0 defeat at a Rostov buoyed by last week’s cup win, Zenit go into the final day with a chance of claiming the title. CSKA, following a 2-0 win at home to Tom Tomsk, go in as favourites after a run of nine straight wins took Leonid Slutsky’s reigning champions from battling for a European berth to the brink of retaining the league – their only defeat since Christmas coming in the final four of the cup.
Lokomotiv’s result, however, places Zenit in a position from which they could still claim the crown. CSKA host Leonid Kuchuk’s men on the final day of the season, and if the champions fail to win, a victory for the St Petersburg side at Kuban – who have little remaining to play for – could see them snatch the crown, even if Lokomotiv pick up the three points. The Railwaymen need Zenit to drop points as well as a win of their own to see them crowned champions, after their best campaign in years came to a stuttering finish.
Those permutation rely on the Russian Football Union upholding their precedent – the bare minimum in the situation – and either allowing Dinamo’s 4-2 win to stand, or handing Zenit a 3-0 technical forfeiture. However, should Villas-Boas’ men manage to turn the deficit around on the final day and win despite their ‘fans” trangressions, there must be serious questions asked of the authorities governing the Russian game.
In an ideal world, CSKA will win against Lokomotiv and the issue will be settled. However, in that same world, Zenit would be docked points for what is not the first instance of fan violence in their recent past, fined a substantial figure – rather than the paltry fines handed out along with those for managers leaving technical areas – and the Petrovsky stadium closed to home fans for a significant number of matches at the start of next season – more than the one or two usually dished out. The fan, arguably along with the others who stopped the game concluding, must also be banned.
Zenit, however, hold a unique position in the footballing world. Owned by Gazprom and with a high wage bill, they would be unlikely to meet UEFA’s Financial Fair Play criteria and so should, in theory, be in line for potential European exclusion. Gazprom, however, have a not insignificant influence in the corridors of power as the Champions League’s man sponsor, and as such Zenit are the untouchable club. In Russia too, the club wields unusual clout as a result of it’s state-owned sponsor and association with those in power, and so any sanction which removes the possibility of Zenit being rewarded with a league title is almost out of the question.
The optimist could view such a scenario as the catalyst for a chain of events which would redistribute power with the Russian game but, looking through a historical lens, such optimism seems unfounded. While the courts will undoubtedly settle yet another Zenit-Dinamo case, what is certain is that if the St Petersburg side do lift the trophy on Thursday, they will do so to the joy of nobody bar their own fans, and they will do so knowing that their trophy will be tainted in the memories of the rest of the watching world.