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Zenit 36 – COVID-19. Can football help defeat the Coronavirus?

For fans of the reigning Russian champions, Zenit St. Petersburg, football can often seem more important than life and death. Undeterred by the growing spread of COVID-19, in March 2020, Zenit’s Gazprom Arena was one of the only places in Europe where it was still possible to watch live sports. The club’s supporters took full advantage of this, packing the stadium to capacity for their side’s 7-1 thrashing of FC Ural. “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die,” they chanted gleefully, as the rest of the world closed down around them in a desperate attempt to contain the virus.

April 6, 2021 - Michael Cole - Stories and ideas

Gazprom Arena during FC Zenit Saint Petersburg vs FK Krasnodar in August 2019. Photo: Vincenzo Togni wikimedia.org

Twelve months later and a lot has changed. Russia has been hit hard, with over 4 million COVID cases and more than 90,000 related deaths recorded at the time of writing. Surely these sobering statistics would be enough to convince even the most hard-core sceptics in St. Petersburg to change their tune? Well, if social media is anything to go by, in March 2021, it seemed like that might be the case. As Zenit’s squad was getting ready to take on Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s adopted football project Akhmat Grozny in the Russian Premier League, the club’s marketing team was busy preparing for a big event of their own.

Three days before the match, Zenit’s official Instagram account announced that not only would supporters get to see two of Russia’s top teams slugging it out live, but their ticket also guaranteed them a dose of the Sputnik V vaccine. The process couldn’t be simpler, just turn up at the stadium before kick-off with a Russian passport and health card, and get your Sputnik jab from one of the mobile clinics on-site. The news quickly attracted envious glances from football fans across Europe, who are desperate to get back into stadiums after more than a year of having to support their teams from home. The Irish Times even joked that it was enough to make people consider applying for dual Russian nationality.

Vaccine diplomacy

And it’s not just in Russian football where Sputnik V has been making headlines recently. Its arrival on the international scene has sparked an unprecedented wave of so-called “vaccine diplomacy,” with EU leaders consistently raising suspicions about Moscow’s “true” motives for producing and disseminating a successful vaccine. Of course, it doesn’t help that one of Sputnik V’s first and most enthusiastic customers was Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orbán knows a thing or two about immunity, having skilfully circumnavigated EU rules without facing any consequences for years. Orbán didn’t actually get the Russian vaccine himself, however. Instead, he opted for the Chinese Sinopharm variant, which left him feeling “sound as a bell.” But as other EU countries, including Italy and Germany, also started warming to the idea of injecting their citizens with Sputnik V, Orbán’s advice to “trust the medical professionals” seems pretty reasonable for once.

The fact is that Sputnik V is one of the most effective vaccines against COVID-19 currently on the market. It has a 91.6 per cent efficacy rate and, unlike some other options available, doesn’t need to be stored or transported at sub-zero temperatures, making it a particularly good choice for poorer and hotter countries. Fears that Moscow will use the opportunity to score political points are not unfounded, but are far outweighed by the necessity to do whatever it takes to save lives. As Honorary Professor at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies Mark Galeotti rightly points out, forcing countries to decide between “Sputnik or death” ultimately benefits no one.

Yet, despite these victories away from home, back in Russia, Sputnik V can’t seem to buy a win. Whether it comes down to conspiracy theories about COVID’s origins as a biological weapon, or just a general lack of trust in anything the state tells them, over 60 per cent of the Russian population simply do not want the vaccine.

Afternoon kick-off

This brings us back to St. Petersburg, where Zenit’s social media department was enjoying a match day filled with positive attention from the international sports press. “It’s funny to see how many foreigners are retweeting this,” said a commentator in a thread about the match on “Sport.ru” afterwards. It seemed that most reporters were so impressed with Zenit’s ingenuity that few followed the story long enough to find out whether the club’s rollout of Sputnik V off the field was as successful as their 4-0 destruction of Akhmat on it.

In fact, even though fans had been warned to get to the Gazprom Arena two hours before the match for their free shots, it turned out they needn’t have bothered. According to Zenit’s director of communications, of the 22,000 people who attended the game, only thirty-six stopped by to collect their complementary vaccinations. To put that in perspective, there were almost as many players and officials on the field as there were patients lining up to get inoculated.

So does the lack of takers for Sputnik V among the club’s fan base confirm they actually meant the words of that song they were singing so joyfully last year, and are preparing for a COVID-inflicted demise? The answer to that question is clearly a resounding “no.” During the match against FC Ural last year, Zenit fans displayed a banner stating that the only cause they were willing to die for was their club. They also claimed to be hopelessly infected by a love for football, and not even Sputnik V can immunise against that.

Pre-match shots

To understand more, I spoke to Timur Valeev, one of the thirty-six who did take advantage of the opportunity, arriving early at the stadium to get his shot. Timur told me that Zenit’s initiative was a convenient option for him, because he wanted to get the vaccine but didn’t have a lot of time. While acknowledging that scepticism might be partly responsible for the slow uptake on match day, he also put it down to logistical factors, explaining that, “People need time to go to the vaccination point, but a lot of them [only] arrived … at the start of the football.”

With the scheme set to continue for the rest of the season, Timur has no doubt that the vaccine is the best way “to defeat the coronavirus.” He plans to go back for his second dose when Zenit play Khimki in the first week of April, and predicts his fellow Zenit supporters will do the same. “More people know about the vaccination point now, and at the next matches, many more people will arrive at the stadium early to take the vaccine,” he said.

Whether Timur’s prediction comes true or not, we’ll find out soon enough, although some fans may never be convinced to take the vaccine, no matter how much their club promotes it. There’s much more to this story than just football, however, because the success or failure of Zenit’s inoculation campaign in the coming weeks surely depends on attitudes toward the vaccine in Russian society more broadly. So if you really want to know what Russians think about Sputnik V, there are much worse places to start your investigation than the Gazprom Arena on April 5th when Zenit face Khimki. Just make sure you get there early.

This article is part of a collaboration between Lossi 36 and New Eastern Europe. Lossi 36 is an online media project publishing news, analysis, and photography from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Since 2018, we are committed to providing high-quality content while shining a spotlight on the work of students and up-and-coming professionals. Read the original post in its entirety here.

Michael Cole is Russia regional editor at Lossi36, a PhD Candidate at the University of Tartu, Estonia and an Early Stage Researcher on the FATIGUE Project. His research examines the social impact of populism, illiberalism and far-right thinking in Georgia, Ukraine and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. 

The FATIGUE project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under grant agreement No. 765224

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