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Raheem Sterling, centre, and his teammates trained yesterday at Liverpool before heading to Saint Peterseburg, Russia to face Zenit.
Raheem Sterling, centre, and his teammates trained yesterday at Liverpool before heading to Saint Peterseburg, Russia to face Zenit.

Zenit St Petersburg coach allays Liverpool's racism fears

Luciano Spalletti says racist spectators are in a minority at his club's home games but the Premier League club are concerned by the manifesto of a fan group of the Russian club, reports Gary Meenaghan.

Liverpool have written to Zenit Saint Petersburg to express concerns over potential racist conduct by the club's fans, but Luciano Spalletti, the coach of the Russian champions, says he has every confidence there will be no issues.

The English Premier League side face Zenit in St Petersburg on Thursday night in the last 32 of the Europa League, marking the first time the Russians have hosted such a fixture since Landskrona, a Zenit fan group, issued a manifesto in December outlining its vision for a team without black or gay players.

Ian Ayre, the Liverpool managing director, confirmed the club had contacted both Zenit and Uefa, European football's governing body, citing a "major concern".

He added, however, that they had yet to receive a response from either party. Spalletti, speaking to The National, said he was focusing only on the game and was not worried about the behaviour of Zenit's fans.

"Liverpool is an important game for us as it is a European competition and obviously we would like to continue in it," the Italian said.

"We have been preparing for this game for a while and winning it is our first objective. We are working hard, focusing on this game and approaching in the best possible way.

"There are millions and millions of Zenit fans so the manifesto or letter was just the opinion of a small group of people and does not concern all Zenit fans.

"There are a lot of people in the world who still have to learn things; maybe they are not the wisest people, so we just have to help them understand. After, once they understand, they will realise that this letter they made was a mistake."

Kevin-Prince Boateng, the AC Milan midfielder, walked off the pitch in January during a friendly match with Pro Patria after being racially abused by spectators in the stands.

Ayre told Liverpool's official website that the club's players have been advised to "remain professional" adding that: "We certainly won't tolerate that type of attitude or any of those types of incidents from our team.

"So the important thing is that we let them know how we expect them to act if there is an incident. I'd much rather we take the incident off the pitch and we deal with it.

"Obviously the referee has a role to play within that. But we'll be briefing our players of what's acceptable and what's not."

Piara Powar, the executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe, told the BBC that "any black player - and I say this reluctantly - but particularly players of darker skin, who are easily identified as being of African heritage, should be very cautious.

"Without wanting to pre-empt problems I certainly think this is one of those games that has the potential for tension; the fact that Liverpool have three or four prominent black players, who will be vulnerable playing on the wings and quite close to the crowd."

Zenit, the champions of the Russian Premier League for the past two seasons, were the last remaining side in the country's top tier not to have a black player registered to the club until they signed Hulk, the Brazilian striker, and Axel Witsel, the Belgian midfielder, last summer for a combined fee of 64 million (Dh366m).

In September, a "fake bomb" with the message "Hulk Out" was found at Zenit's training ground.

The player told The National last month he can walk the streets of St Petersburg without problem.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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