Zenit in Crisis Before Showdown With AC Milan
Published: October 3, 2012 (Issue # 1729)
DMITRY LOVETSKY / AP
Igor Denisov is refusing to play for FC Zenit until he gets more money.
Wednesday evening marks Zenit’s first home game in the Champions League group stage, and the face-off with Italian side AC Milan could not come at a worse time.
Languishing in seventh place in the Russian Premier League after confidently leading the table only a few weeks before, Zenit has now been hit by a scandal that threatens to tear the team in two. Its potentially catastrophic consequences are already apparent, with Zenit having recorded just one win in the last five matches, including a 3-0 thrashing by Malaga CF in the first CL group game. Team spirit is at an all-time low and in-team rivalry has led to drastic measures from club management, as key team members protest against two new players getting paid more than them.
The leader of the conflict, Russian national team captain and midfielder Igor Denisov, initiated what now threatens to become a full-blown mutiny against club and management in his refusal to play in a league match against Krylya Sovietov Samara on Sept. 22.
According to an official club statement the following day, the player had issued an ultimatum, demanding talks over an improved contract and salary before continuing to play for the club.
The club rejected Denisov’s demands and announced his demotion to the youth squad for failing to fulfill contractual obligations, publically stating that his “salary is one of the highest not only in Zenit, but in the entire Russian Premier League” and that “it corresponds to the high value of Denisov as a player, and is comparable to the salaries of players of similar stature in Europe.”
On Sept. 24, Denisov shot back at the club in a frank interview with news daily Sport Express that reaffirmed his unwillingness to step down from his position. He cited the two record signings of Brazilian striker Hulk and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel last month — and their multi-million euro salaries — as the source of the conflict, which he said created an imbalance in the squad that he was personally fighting against through his demands for a higher salary.
“Are they [the new players] so much better than our team’s current leaders that they deserve to get three times more [money]? Zenit is composed of excellent players, who have won no less than the newcomers. […] We deserve more respect,” he was quoted by Sport Express as saying.
A native of St. Petersburg, Denisov, 28, debuted with the club in 2002. He was voted the best player of the Russian Premier League in 2011-2012.
Other national team members, including Vyacheslav Malafeev, Vladimir Bystrov and Alexander Kerzhakov have reportedly expressed support for Denisov to the club. Kerzhakov was also demoted to the youth team after the Sept. 22 game for “improper behavior,” having expressed support for Denisov, though Kerzhakov has since been pardoned and came out to play against Lokomotiv Moscow on Saturday.
The importance of Wednesday’s game for the future of Zenit cannot be underestimated; a loss would be nothing short of disastrous for the club’s sponsors and management. The two record-breaking signings of Hulk and Witsel for a combined 80 million euros were made with the intent of bringing Zenit success in the Champions League, with talks of the quarterfinals as the goal. More importantly, club president Alexander Dyukov justified the enormous sums by claiming that their financing would not increase the club’s budget, as it would be broken down into increments during the next three years, which would presumably be covered by future Champions League successes.
A second successive loss in group qualification would end those plans just as they begin, deeming the ambitious project a premature failure. It seems that the tens of millions spent to improve the squad may well be the reason for its collapse.