London – Liverpool have been handed the trip from hell after being drawn against Zenit St Petersburg in the first knockout round of the Europa League.
A group of Zenit supporters sparked outrage this week when they published a manifesto calling for all ‘non-Europeans’ and ‘sexual minorities’ to be barred from playing for the club and Zenit remain the only Russian club never to have signed an African player.
The manifesto, which Zenit boss Luciano Spalletti quickly distanced himself from, also declares: “Black players are being imposed on Zenit almost by force.” That prompted former Blackburn defender Christopher Samba, now of Anzhi Makhachkala, to label Zenit fans racist.
It promises to be an uncomfortable trip for Liverpool with as many as five high-profile black players in their squad. Glen Johnson, Raheem Sterling and Andre Wisdom could yet be joined by January targets Tom Ince and Daniel Sturridge.
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers refused to discuss in detail on Thursday the prospect of what might happen in St Petersburg.
He said: “It is a good draw for us. We have had experience of playing in Russia (this season against Anzhi). It is important we go there as group winners as it means we play the second leg at home. They are a good side and they have invested a lot of money.”
When pressed about the racist manifesto, Rodgers said: “I haven’t given it any thought. I’ve got my own view but that’s for nearer the time. I’ve seen that come out but I’ve got nothing to say on it.”
Liverpool have only suffered two incidents of players being racially abused in recent years. Emile Heskey was targeted in Kiev in 2002, while Djibril Cisse was abused three years later in Sofia during a Champions League qualifier.
When Gerard Houllier took Liverpool to Spartak Moscow in 2002, he said he would lead his side off the pitch if they were subjected to racist chanting but the game passed without incident.
Meanwhile, it is expected that Liverpool will formally announce Sterling has committed his future to the club in the next 24 hours. His representatives shook hands on a deal on Wednesday that will see him earn around £30,000 a week for the next five years.
Though Rodgers is thrilled that the business has reached a successful conclusion, he has made it clear he will not tolerate Sterling sitting back and thinking he has done enough. The manager on Wednesday pointed out that Sterling is not yet at senior level.
“He hasn’t joined those ranks, don’t worry about that,” said Rodgers. “He has been rewarded as a young player who, at 17, has come in and performed very well. He will never be elevated above his position here.
“There is a lot of development and a lot of nurturing to go yet, but he has been rightly rewarded and it is fantastic for the club. If you play for a big club there is always going to be expectation. For young Raheem we need to help manage those expectations.
“If you go into a lot of clubs as a young player it is a nice little journey. If you go in at one of the biggest clubs in the world it is magnified one million per cent.
“It is our job to nurture him and educate him and there is still so much for him to learn. He hasn’t long left school.”
Rodgers added: “It is not only football education he needs but life education. We will support him in that and make sure the expectancy is at the correct level.
“I always congratulate players when they sign a new contract and then I warn them. I tell them they need to decide after this contract whether there is going to be another contract at one of the biggest clubs in the world or whether it will be at a different level.”
Liverpool remain confident of completing a deal for Ince despite Blackpool saying they have rejected an offer from Anfield for the England Under 21 forward.
THE MOST RACIST CLUB IN FOOTBALL?
Zenit St Petersburg’s fans have one of the worst reputations for racism in world football. Here are some of the reasons why...
Olympique Marseille players complain of being racially abused after facing Zenit in a Uefa Cup tie. Before the final in Manchester, manager Dick Advocaat says: “I would be happy to sign anyone, but the fans don’t like black players.”
Zenit are fined $10,000 after one of their supporters offers Brazilian full back Roberto Carlos a banana before a Russian Premier League match against Anzhi Makhachkala.
Zenit fan club Landscrona writes in an open letter: “We’re not racists but we see the absence of black players at Zenit as an important tradition.” – Daily Mail