Zenit stars revolt over Hulk signing
Russian champions Zenit Saint Peterbsurg were in danger of descending into civil war on Sunday after its top players refused to take to the pitch over the arrival of Brazilian superstar strike Hulk.
Hulk and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel signed for a reported €100 million this month from Portuguese clubs Porto and Benfica – a sum covered by the team's enormous sponsor Gazprom.
But Zenit has since failed to win its its three matches – losing two and drawing one – while seeing Hulk express displeasure over some of the Russians' commitment after his very first appearance on the pitch.
The tensions were clearly running both ways this week when leading league scorer Alexander Kerzhakov and new Russian captain Igor Denisov boycotted training and requested to be kept out of this weekend's action.
Luciano Spalletti responded by listening to their demands and then assigning them to the youth squad. Reports said several other players may soon follow.
Sports agents said Denisov was taken aback by Hulk's reported the 6.5-million-euro annual wages and shocked to hear that Witsel himself would be making almost half that.
The Russian team captain was said to be seeking new terms even before Hulk's arrival and was being strongly supported by Kerzhakov.
"The truth is, all is not quiet with the team," Spalletti told reporters in whispered tones late Saturday.
"Some players think that this sort of agitation is the right solution for the club right now," he added in comments that appeared to confirm rumours of a team revolt.
"But they have to understand that their line of thinking is unfair."
Team sources said the pair's position was backed by the influential goalkeeper Vyaceslav Malafeyev as well as the veterans Vladimir Bystrov and Alexander Anyukov – all three of them current or former national team players.
Hulk for his part used this weekend's away draw with lowly Samara to open his Russian account with a blistering trademark shot from outside the penalty area that crept in under the crossbar.
Zenit have lacked spark for much of the start of the season and find themselves in fourth place after nine matches and a 3-0 Champions League drubbing away to Spain's Malaga.
They had clinched the previous league title early and are still Russia's winning-most side of the past decade – a distinction they wrested away from Moscow's early post-Soviet champions Spartak.
But the Sovetsky Sport said Sunday that tension was running so high at the club that Kerzhakov and Denisov may soon end up leaving the blue-and-white.
The popular daily said on its website that coach Spalletti "had received all the necessary assurances from club shareholders" that he had the right to put up any one of his star players for sale.
The club issued a statement late Sunday calling Denisov's behavior "unprofessional" and noting that he still had three more years left on a contract that made him one of the highest-paid players in Russia.
"He is discrediting himself as a player for club and country while doing serious damage to his own reputation," Zenit said in a blistering statement.
And some former team members, who enjoy a wide following among Zenit's closely-knit legion of fans, expressed strong disappointment with their former teammates response to the headline arrivals.
"I do not understand why certain Zenit players are sneaking peeks at what is inside other players' wallets," said the team's beloved former fullback Makhsim Bokov.