Why wait for a scoop on racism in Russian football when you can invent one? The Western media did exactly that, reporting Zenit fans held a “don’t sign black players” banner to greet new signing Malcom (spoiler: it’s not true).
Last week, the Brazilian forward completed a Russian-record €40 million move after a brief, awkward spell at La Liga giants Barcelona and made his debut for the blue-white-skyblues in the 1-1 draw against Krasnodar on Sunday.
As if perpetually lying in wait for the slightest whiff of racism, the Western press ignored over 54,000 fans present cheering their new number 8 jogging onto the field, and instead followed their predatory instinct to focus on a tiny banner nestled into the corner of the ground.
The words “thank you leadership for believing in tradition” had been scrawled over a small white sheet and hung in the corner of the stadium. The message was a sarcastic swipe at club chiefs from a small pocket of fans who harbor the belief of investing in homegrown youth products rather than splashing mega bucks on foreign exports.
Cue the baying for Russian football fan blood.
First to gnash their jaws at the news were the English tabloid The Sun, who construed the message as a “shocking racist banner” protesting “black player Malcom” and before long the rumor wildfire had spread and the pack of hungry-for-hysteria football accounts pounced.
Among social media’s ravenous rabble of injustice-seekers was Sporf, who went one further and tweeted to their 1.3 million followers that the banner read: “Keep our traditions the same and don’t sign black players”.
Poor Russian translation could be forgiven and a blatant lie might have been laughed off as typically poor reporting, if it hadn’t come from a highly influential sports fan platform whose clients include Team GB, Sky Bet and Bundesliga.
This seems to have been the result of a game of “Chinese whispers,” as earlier other accounts had done the same thing, quoting the same half-poorly-translated, half-non-existent message and then pinging around the usual virtue-signalling one-liners such as “horrific” and “disgusting”.
Sporf’s tweet was eventually deleted but not before Zenit could laconically respond by denouncing it as “fake news.”Other tweets from accounts totaling close to one million subscribers weren’t so quick to admit defeat. The damage had already been done by the sheer number of likes and interactions. Opinions had been formed, conclusions drawn, however right or wrong.
It would of course be myopic to claim racism in Russian football doesn’t exist, just as it would be to ignore Moise Kean’s treatment from rival Italian fans, or monkey chants directed at England players in Montenegro, both instances occurring mere months ago.
The traditions mentioned in the banner can appear to be a reference to the manifesto of Zenit fan group ‘Landscrona’,which talks about promoting investment in local youth, avoiding expensive transfers of players from abroad, and preventing “the people’s game” from becoming “purely business”.
Is this really something shocking, or even new? When La Liga side Athletic Bilbao adopt a recruitment strategy that adheres to the unwritten rule they must exclusively recruit players either born or raised in the Basque country, or are the product of a local club, in order to preserve Basque nationalism, that is celebrated as a success and philosophy of breeding local talent.
Through no fault of his own, Malcom became the player for which Zenit broke the Russian transfer record for the third time. The club had twice previously paid the same amount for Axel Witsel and Hulk – two stars who commanded big wages, only to leave for China in big-money deals.
Any similar transfer would make any fan clinging desperately to distant traditions wary of similar acquisitions and further movement away from their perception of the club’s identity.
Combating racism in football seems like a never-ending battle to eliminate a poisonous minority who are given voices by simply turning up at the world’s biggest sporting arenas and spouting vitriol, when their views should be deprived of oxygen at the source. But when fans have such voices invented for them by having words put in their mouths, that battle is made ever harder to win.