St. Petersburg, Russia is the most beautiful city in the world on a sunny day. I spent a few long summer days strolling around the city in 2007 with it’s graceful bridges, historic architecture, priceless collections of art, museums for literary giants, and romantic canals. I loved every bit of it, but the thing I loved most was the spirit the city had, illustrated by its pride for its soccer team, Zenit. Every car had a mini replica jersey hanging from the rearview mirror; every cafe seemed to have a poster of Arshavin pouting at you from the wall; every street had billboards featuring Zenit players touting everything from SIM cards to supermarkets. Other signs featured the slogan, “Ya boleyu za Zenit!” I asked my friend, Oksana, what that meant. She told me that, literally, it meant, “I am sick for Zenit.” That’s what it means to be a fan in Russian: to be sick for one’s team.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this city and the power this team held over it. I had returned to the US with a mini replica Zenit jersey for my rearview mirror, and every day it was a reminder that I had unfinished business there. So, when an opportunity arose to take a teaching job at an international school there, I took it. I arrived and discovered that I lived on the same street as Zenit’s stadium, the Petrovsky. About a week later, Zenit beat Manchester United in the 2008 UEFA Super Cup; the city erupted. Cars started showing up honking. Soon, people started spilling out of all the buildings cheering, shouting, singing, and waving their Zenit scarves and flags. More and more cars showed up honking and with people crammed into every inch and even riding on hoods, trunks, and roofs. My roommate and I started to head for home when our friend warned us to not speak English too loudly on the way back since people might mistake us for Manchester United fans, and, well, just don’t speak English too loudly.
The autumn passed, followed by the coldest winter I had ever experienced, but then spring arrived. Spring in St. Petersburg isn’t that lovely. The whole city had been under ice for the last 5 months and suddenly every cigarette butt, every discarded beer bottle, every dog dropping, every human dropping, and the occasional dead cat emerged from the melting slush. However, it did mean the beginning of Zenit’s season, and a coworker and I went and to get tickets to Zenit’s home opener against Amkar Perm. Technically this was their second home game as the first one was played behind closed doors after Zenit was punished for their fans displaying a “tasteless and offensive” banner the previous season; their cause certainly wasn’t helped by their supporters involved in crowd trouble during their away opener against Spartak Moscow. When my friend and I arrived to the ticket kiosks, a scalper told us that everything was sold out except for Sector 6 which was half away fans, half home fans. Perhaps we would like a more peaceful sector, he said. We declined, purchased our tickets in Sector 6, and prepared for the worst.
It was a bit of an anticlimax. There were probably about 50 away supporters (1,000 miles separating two teams will do that), and they didn’t get up to too much trouble. Aside from a few smoke bombs, quickly dispersed by an icy wind, neither did the Zenit supporters. The game itself never really got going as Zenit was still learning how to play without Arshavin who had recently moved to Arsenal, and finished 0-0. The Petrovsky itself, while boasting an impressive location on an island at the mouth of the Neva River, was literally crumbling underneath my feet. However, the one thing that wasn’t anticlimactic was the noise generated by the 20,000 Petersburgers. They would roar in unison, “Forward, Zenit! Forward for St. Petersburg!” Their love for their city and their team thundered around the stadium and over the river to the rest of the city. The other highlight of the day was Zenit’s entrance to the field accompanied by Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best.”
I went to a few more games during my time Russia. To be honest, a lot of the things that stick out aren’t positive: getting caught in a crush brought about by heavy-handed policing, Zenit fans hanging opposing players in effigy and unfurling a banner declaring “dreams can come true,” visiting supporters from Moscow marching to the match and kicking side mirrors off of parked cars, fans from “The Virazh” tearing up seats and throwing them at police, and a fist fight between my neighbors at a match over their seats. There were some good moments too: celebrating goals wildly with strangers, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk saying an emotional farewell to the fans before heading off to Bayern Munich, purchasing my “Zenit – Champion” scarf after seeing them win the league, basking in the sun at the Petrovsky with friends after another long winter, learning naughty words in Russian, chuckling at the fan that adapted the “Forward for St. Petersburg” chant to “Forward for Beer,” the young student that gifted me his favorite Zenit poster, and the constant rumor that Zenit’s left fullback Kim Dong-Jin was going to come and hang out at my school’s Saturday pickup games.
Sadly, Zenit is often in the news for reasons other than their on-field performances, such as the infamous “Selection Manifesto 12” from a prominent Zenit fan group; type “Zenit fined” into Google and you get the idea. It’s hard to see the club that represents the city I love so much reviled – and quite rightly – so deeply. It makes me wonder whether it’s even ethical to support this club. At what point does one stop being a fan of a club? What does a club have to do? What has to happen for this club culture to change?