Putin wades into Zenit Hulk scandal
Russian President Vladimir Putin cautiously waded Tuesday into a flaring scandal over Zenit's purchase of pricey Brazilian superstar Hulk by pointing out "certain pluses" of foreign signings.
Putin said his native Saint Petersburg club made its own decisions through management at the huge Gazprom gas monopoly and did not use state money to pay $6.5 million a year for the former Porto striker.
The Russian strongman and avid sports fan said he like others was torn between wanting to see more local talent in the league and having fans enjoy watching some of the world's most gifted players.
"I also complain sometimes. And just today I was once again fighting with the heads of companies," Putin told a special meeting devoted to culture.
"And I would like to note that it is the companies that buy the players and not the government," he added in televised remarks.
"But the fans also want to see world stars -- and not those who are on the wane, but those who are hitting their peak, who are on the rise."
"This also has certain pluses -- and we are talking about something that touches millions of fans," he added without mentioning the controversy directly.
Zenit has been hit by bruising internal divisions since being joined by Hulk and former Benfica midfielder Axel Witsel at the start of the month on a reported 100-million-euro ($130 million) transfer.
The club's Russian captain Igor Denisov and leading scorer Alexander Kerzhakov have already been demoted to the youth squad for going public with new wage demands and refusing to train with the team.
The defending league champions meanwhile find themselves languishing in fourth place and threatened by a broader team walkout.
Zenit has already accused Denisov -- now hoping to negotiate a new deal despite his $3-million annual contract being good through 2015 -- of being "unprofessional".
The team's general director on Tuesday demanded to hear a formal apology from Denisov before putting him on the pitch once again.
He -- but not Kerzhakov -- was missing from the squad announced for their early-round Russia Cup match against lower division Baltika Kalingrad later Tuesday.
"The club has fulfilled and continues to fulfill its obligations to the player," Zenit General Director Maxim Mitrofanov told the Sport Express daily.
"The only choice Denisov has at this stage is to apologise to the club."
The Zenit boss added that had no intention of making the 28-year-old -- handed the captaincy of Russia earlier this year -- available for transfer.
"He will serve out his contract until the end," Mitrofanov said flatly.
Russian media have speculated that Zenit may now have to part with a raft of players and begin a rejuvenation campaign aimed at giving new life to a team that has changed little since winning the UEFA Super Cup in 2008.
One Russian report said Hulk tried to salvage the situation by talking to the disgruntled players himself before being given the cold shoulder.
"Things can develop according to different scenarios, but it is already clear that the team has serious psychological problems," wrote Izvestia daily.
But the general director dismissed all talk of "crisis" while Gazprom boss Alexei Miller expressed confidence that the club's problems could be settled soon.
"Everything will be fine," Miller told Russian reporters.
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