Saul Pope –
As unusual as the sight of Spartak Moscow topping the Russian Football Premier League table this season has been the sight of banners at CSKA Moscow games criticising their popular manager, Leonid Slutsky. “Stop shitting yourselves and start playing” is a rough translation of the brusque message on one. The banner was accompanied by a caricature of Slutsky inside a red traffic prohibition sign. This was followed last weekend by a second banner with the initials ЛСПНХ, which if translated directly into English would read LSFO. This banner was quickly removed.
The banners have appeared at recent home games at a time when CSKA are lagging behind both Spartak and Zenit Saint Petersburg in the league, and have also underperformed in this season’s Champions League. They also appear not long after Slutsky appeared in a commercial for a Moscow Jewish religious-cultural centre along with other Jewish celebrities. Russian football watcher James Appell questioned whether the timing of this advert and the protest banners were linked.
Banners have an anti-Semitic undertones
It seems that, sadly, there is some link. In a post about the second banner on social network VKontakte, the ‘Men in Black‘ fan group claimed it appeared following “an increasing number of questions for Leonid Viktorovich to answer, both about the team’s performance and about his personal conduct”. The post went on to state that Slutsky was no long as ready to have dialogue with fans as he had been in the past.
In the weeks since coach Leonid Slutsky took part in a commercial for a synagogue, some CSKA fans calling for his resignation. Coincidence? pic.twitter.com/lxi3SbPBNy
— James Appell (@jamesappell) October 24, 2016
If this post only vaguely hints at the link between the advert and the banner, fan movement CSKA Against Racism were more direct: “A far-right group of fans called Men in Black started a disgusting antisemitic campaign against Slutsky because of that video clip. An absolute majority of fans showed solidarity and were disgusted by it [the campaign],” they tweeted. CSKA Fans Against Racism also noted that this feeling of disgust extended to those who have accused Slutsky of cowardly strategies and presumably want him to go.
CSKA fan @Shadow1882 backed up this point: “We’re an international, multi-confessional club that never had such [anti-Semitic] problems,” he tweeted. “In the current difficult situation we shouldn’t blame the trainer and instead have a sensible discussion. Not everyone does this, unfortunately.”
Although the offensive banners with a racist overtone represent just a small minority (CSKA Against Racism claim that over 90% of the club’s fans are people you can have a “decent conversation with”), more widespread is confusion and concern about the club’s current situation. Although CSKA are currently third, it’s difficult to imagine them successfully defending last season’s title—or qualifying from their Champions League group. Currently bottom after three games, they may even miss out on a Europa League place.
Protests are also aimed at the coaches tactics
Fans currently seem torn between feeling respect for one of their most successful trainers in the modern era (with three league titles and two cup wins, he is not far behind the legendary Valeri Gazzaev) and the nagging feeling that, after seven years, it’s time for a change.
In the stick with Slutsky camp is former USSR international and football pundit Evgeni Lovchev, who suggested the main issue at CSKA was the players rather than the coach. Certainly one key issue is the absence of midfielders Alan Dzagoev and Roman Eremenko, the former due to injury and the latter through a mysterious month-long suspension. The side have also failed to replace forward Ahmed Musa adequately and, as Lovchev pointed out, do not have a big squad compared to the likes of Zenit. In their current predicament CSKA would probably value Zenit forward and national team top scorer Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who has only been a bit-part player since his return to Saint Petersburg in the summer.
The worry is that a change mid-season might only make things worse. Two names being whispered as replacements by a brave few are Oleg Kononov, who recently left FC Krasnodar but is seen as having the potential to manage another big club, and Viktor Goncharenko, an up-and-coming talent who has spent time at CSKA as an assistant manager. Goncharenko was expected to succeed Slutsky following a decent Euro 2016, with the latter getting the Russia coach job on a permanent basis— a few months down the line Slutsky finds himself not only having lost that opportunity to permanently coach the Russian national team, but with his club role being called into question too.
As one fan put it on my Twitter feed, club President Evgeni Giner “hasn’t boiled over yet”—which probably means that, barring a catastrophe, Slutskiy has until the summer. By that time Dzagoev will be back and hopefully will remain fit, and the issues up front may have also been resolved by an astute winter signing.
It may all end up being a storm on a teacup, but the present is a time of confusion for CSKA fans. Perhaps the one thing all but the thuggish minority agree on is that the offensive banners are the biggest waste of energy when it comes to resolving the club’s current predicament.
Saul Pope has been following Russian football since the mid nineties, and first saw a live game in 1998 (Zenit St. Petersburg vs Shinnik Yaroslavl’). He has been contributing to When Saturday Comes magazine for over a decade, with a particular focus on social, economic and political issues surrounding the game in Russia and, to a lesser extent, Ukraine. He has a particular passion for teams in and around St. Petersburg. A fluent Russian speaker, he graduated from the University of Surrey with a Master’s degree in the language. He lives in the UK, but travels back to Russia on a regular basis. You can follow Saul on Twitter @SaulPope.