By Tony Attwood
When the largest fan club of Zenit St Petersburg (champions of Russia) demanded the club not buy black or gay players there was a shudder throughout a lot of football. What wasn’t mentioned (as far as I could see) however was that Arsenal got a mention in the manifesto.
And when I saw that, my mind started to ponder exactly where we had got to.
The Zenit fans attempted to justify their stance by saying that, “We’re not racists but we see the absence of black players at Zenit as an important tradition.” I think I’m not the only one who shudders deeply when someone starts a sentence, “I am not racist but…” I also shuddered at this one: “It would allow Zenit to maintain the national identity of the club, which is the symbol of St Petersburg.”
Zenit have never signed an African player and fan group said: “We only want players from other brotherly Slav nations, such as Ukraine and Belarus as well as from the Baltic states and Scandinavia. We have the same mentality and historical and cultural background as these nations.”
I wouldn’t have written about this, had it not been for the fact that one non-Arsenal supporter pointed out that there was no difference between that statement above and Mr Wenger talking about the value of signing British players, and recent positive press comments about the value of a “British spine” to the team – in contrast with their rants some years back when we had no English players in the side.
But it is when race, nationality, tradition and cultural background all come together that we get into choppy waters.
Consider Arsenal’s tradition. From its very earliest of days Arsenal always had several non-English players in the team, and has maintained that tradition. No one seemed to mind that several non-Englishmen played for Arsenal in their opening league games in 1893.
Thus it was that without any real logic, or attempt to make a direct connection, my mind wandered to other clubs that have been known to select players for non-footballing reasons. If I remember correctly Athletic Bilbao only sign players Basque players or players with an ancestry that comes from the Greater Basque region. And I believe that for many years Rangers would only sign Protestants and Celtic only Catholics, although that ended some years back.
I am uncomfortable with all these discriminations whether they be legal or not. Arsenal could say, “we will only sign English players” or “we only sign players who are historically associated with London”. There would be nothing illegal about that since England and London are not racist terms. The club could even say it would not sign Scottish players, because again Scotland is not a race. But fortunately for all of us, these issues don’t arise.
So what we see is a demand for the club to use “its own graduates, Russian players and foreign players with a similar mentality,” which is although not a racist statement in itself, a very dangerous one given that “mentality” is not defined, but turns up in a document which also says that they don’t want players who represent “sexual minorities”.
As I said at the start, Arsenal got a mention within this manifesto. “Now we fear that the club is turning from this road and following the paths of Manchester City, Arsenal, Anzhi and others who buy packs of players from around the world who do not represent the city or region they represent. For us it’s important that Zenit preserves its identity. …We want to prevent the transformation of Zenit from unique auteur cinema into a Hollywood blockbuster.”
The original Arsenal teams were made up of men associated either with the locality, and the ordnance factories – but those men were not all men of Kent, nor even men from Kent and/or London. The team regularly played with between three and five Scots in the lineup, and the man who did more than anything else to stabilise the club, and who was the first chairman of Woolwich Arsenal as a league team was born and bred in Co Durham.
So why then did people so criticise Arsenal for putting out teams with no, or few, Englishmen in the team when the club had been represented by non-Englishmen from the start? Why is an English spine to a team better? Is it about Englishmen being inherently better? (If you are of a certain age you might recall hearing about the fact that the English national team should always play with a big strong centre forward because foreign goalkeepers couldn’t cope with them). And why is it acceptable to talk about the positive nature of an English spine to a team, while the Zenit manifesto worries most of us.
I suspect that the fact that for a while we had no British players regularly in the first team and now we have several is just coincidence. There is no Arsenal policy of discriminating in favour of English or English and Welsh players. But if the newspapers and TV pundits that endlessly ranted against Arsenal during the period of our having no Englishmen in the regular first team were to be believed, Arsenal should have had a nationalist (if not a racist) policy. Though quite why we should have done was never explained (unless somehow it would have helped England not miss so many penalties).
When we get into a tangle like this, things become difficult. Compare the criticism of Arsenal for having no Englishmen in its first team on occasions, with this comment from the Zenit fans:
“We, as the most northern club of major European cities, never mentally were associated with Africa or to South America or Australia and Oceania. We have absolutely nothing against the people of these and any other continents, but we want primarily at Zenit to have players who are close to us in spirit and mentality.”
The issue is one of the local identity of the club. I support Arsenal because I was brought up near to the ground, and my father and both my grandfathers supported Arsenal. That was the source of the local identity, not the players. My early memories of Arsenal involve seeing Northern Ireland full backs, and a Welsh goal keeper. Later a Scottish centre forward. Of course I knew where these players came from, but it didn’t worry me. Arsenal was my local club and I couldn’t care less where the players were from.
Now that local identity has gone. I retain my season ticket while living in the East Midlands. The trains from this region are packed with Arsenal fans on match days. Does it matter that Arsenal was never fully identified with England, and is now not even identified with London? Does it matter that we have fans all over the world?
For me, the answer is no. I still call myself a Londoner, because of my origins in the city, and the fact that I worked in London for many years. But I don’t worry about the origins of players nor other supporters. That’s why the Zenit manifesto is so troubling but also so illuminating.
For me, it doesn’t matter where the players come from nor where the manager comes from, nor where the supporters come from. I like the fact that we have become an international club and for me all the talk about the Arsenal’s new “British spine” is irrelevant. I really don’t care where a player was born or brought up. If he’s Arsenal, then I support him.
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