With a team in one European final and the eyes of the world set to focus on Russia as it hosts another this month, it is tempting to believe that the Russian football garden has never looked rosier. Big investment, rising standards, top foreign coaching gurus, and an ever growing number of stars from around the world continuing to flock to the local Premier League.
Already in 2004, there were over 200 foreign professionals registered in Russia. Over a quarter of those were Africans. And black players continue to arrive in large numbers, lured, like other foreign mercenaries, by the prospect of huge wages and the chance of a springboard to the big leagues of Western Europe. The six-figure salaries and luxury lifestyle on offer for these players at top Russian clubs are in stark contrast to the welcome often afforded them when they venture into the streets, or onto the pitch.
"I would be happy to sign anyone, but the fans don't like black players. Quite honestly, I do not understand how they could pay so much attention to skin colour." That assertion – made by Zenit St Petersburg coach Dick Advocaat earlier this year, was as shocking for its matter-of-factness as for its implications. "For us (signing a black player] is impossible," he confirmed.
The Dutchman was, bluntly, acknowledging a reality that has blighted the Russian game for years. And Zenit fans, or rather a voluble section among them, are serial offenders.
Two years ago, as Zenit kicked off their 2006/07 Russian Premier League campaign against visitors Saturn, the two team captains, Vladislav Radimov and Antonio Geder met in the centre of the pitch for the traditional raising of the Russian flag. As Geder put his hand on the flag, a chorus of monkey chants rang out around Petrovsky Stadium. Geder, a Brazilian, is black.
In March this year, when Marseille came to town for their meeting with Zenit in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup, it was a similar story. As three of the French club's black players warmed up on the touchline, they were met with the same monkey chants and even had to suffer bananas being thrown at them. Marseille submitted an official complaint. UEFA spokesman William Gaillard promised an investigation, and pledged zero tolerance approach, but thus far have failed to deliver any sanctions.
Zenit meanwhile issued a less than convincing official riposte: "Zenit unites football players of different nationalities and religions. Our club has millions of supporters in different countries. The club and its players repeatedly took part in the anti-racist programmes permanently expressing their negative attitude to any outbreaks of racism… The club can only express its bewilderment concerning the accusations of racist propaganda made by Zenit fans that appeared after Marseille left St Petersburg."
Senegalese defender, Pascal Mendy – now at Kaunas and linked in the past with Hearts – claimed during his time at Dynamo Moscow that there were two major problems in Russia: "Racism and the language. I am frightened to go out at night in Moscow. I am scared of racist attacks. After my first match I was attacked by three Russians on my 10-minute walk home. Luckily I'm quick. I ran away from them. That was my debut in Russian football."
Hearts' Ghanaian midfielder Laryea Kingston, who spent three years in Russia before moving to Scotland, reinforces the picture painted by Mendy, claiming that, had he not left, he risked losing his family. "They didn't like it to be honest. There was a lot of racism there, and they experienced that. It was very hard for them. Last season, my wife said she would divorce me, if I stayed there. I had to listen to her."
One of the African trailblazers was Cameroon defender, Jerry Christian Tchuisse who has had spells with Spartak Moscow and other clubs. In 2006, the Russian Football Union approached him to take part in their Match against Racism, in which the Russian national side took on a team made up of players from Africa and South America plying their trade in the RPL. It was a worthy idea, which caught the attention of the media, and Tschuisse expressed the hope that "it might actually change something."
The Cameroonian is still in Russia, but his optimism has surely by now waned. Now playing for second division Vityaz, last month he was subjected to the standard monkey howls and insults during a match against Torpedo Moscow. In the dying minutes he lost his cool and reacted angrily to the crowd's taunts. He was red-carded. The referee's report noted that he had been dismissed for "responding to the racist taunts of Torpedo (Moscow] fans with a vulgar gesture".
For all the high-profile initiatives, and official proclamations, that incident suggests a disturbing acceptance of racism as part of the landscape within the officialdom, and that little is really being done to stamp it out at grassroots level.
It is rare though to hear anyone – aside from the black players at the end of the abuse – criticise the governing bodies for not taking a tougher stance.
One who has is Czech keeper Antonin Kinsky, who has played for Saturn since 2004. During a recent match against Khimki, whose fans enjoy a reputation worse even than Zenit's, he was enraged by the treatment dished out to his black teammates: "I'd like to talk about the behaviour of the Khimki supporters. Journalists don't write about this, they don't show it on TV. But whenever (the Malawian] Benni Angbwa or (Brazilian] Zelao touched the ball, they started making monkey noises. Why this disrespect towards black players? I can't answer this question. But I find it amazing and incomprehensible that the Russian football authorities don't take any action. How can you allow people to shout that kind of thing? If the suits and the football chiefs don't do anything, it means they condone that kind of behaviour? If nothing changes, I've no idea where this country is headed," continues Kinsky.
As he was winding down his presidency, Russian leader Vladimir Putin recently expressed concern at the state of the Russian game. His chief gripe was that clubs were spending too much on foreign players and not nurturing homegrown talent. Typically the issue of racism was not raised. Perhaps the man who has just been inaugurated as his successor – Dmitry Medvedev – a Zenit fan – will view it as a matter of greater importance.