Hulk is no Messi, says demoted Zenit star

Dmitry Zaks
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Zenit Saint Petersburg's new signing Hulk

Zenit Saint Petersburg midfielder Igor Denisov has branded new signing Hulk, pictured on September 14, a second-rate star after being demoted from the first team for speaking out about the Brazilian striker's lucrative contract

Zenit Saint Petersburg midfielder Igor Denisov has branded new signing Hulk a second-rate star after being demoted from the first team for speaking out about the Brazilian striker's lucrative contract.

"I would understand if we got (Argentine superstar Lionel) Messi or (Spanish midfielder Andres) Iniesta -- they probably deserve any price," said Russian captain Denisov.

"Yes, we bought some good players who will clearly help Zenit. But are they really so much better than the current team leaders that they deserve to get three times more?" the 28-year-old midfielder asked.

"Zenit have assembled some great players who have won at least as many titles as the new guys."

Denisov and the Russian league's leading scorer Alexander Kerzhakov were both dropped to the youth squad on Sunday after voicing displeasure at the 100-million-euro ($129 million) transfers from the Portuguese league of Hulk and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel.

Hulk reportedly signed a 6.5-million-euro annual contract after joining from Porto, while former Benfica midfielder Witsel was awarded just under half that amount.

The two players were purchased by Zenit's wealthy sponsors Gazprom in early September after a disappointing start to the season that has seen the Russian champions squander their lead at the top of the league and drop to fifth.

The new signings represent direct competition for Denisov and Kerzhakov.

But their case has reportedly also been taken up by other Russian players, including figures as influential as Zenit goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeyev and veteran Vladimir Bystrov.

The club issued a statement late on Sunday calling Denisov's behaviour "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.

Zenit's general director Maxim Mitrofanov told Sport Express daily on Monday that unless Denisov backs down he will have to work out his contract in the youth squad with no possibility of transfer to another club.

"The only option for Igor in this situation is to apologise to the team, the club, the fans and the shareholders. Only then can the option of his return to the first team be considered," he said.

For its part, Gazprom said it would not be taking sides in the dispute despite Denisov's criticisms of the club's recruitment strategy.

"These are issues for the club to deal with," said official spokesman Sergei Kuprianov.

Denisov insisted he held the good of the team close to his heart.

"It is not the money that is most important," the player said. "What is at stake is something else entirely: a working atmosphere at the club and respect shown towards your own Russian players -- the ones that Zenit have always relied on."

The dispute continues a tricky period for the league's new heavyweights that began when Zenit icon Andrei Arshavin disparaged the club's fans following Russia's premature exit from Euro 2012.

Arshavin ended up not getting his loan to Zenit from Arsenal extended by the Gazprom management -- a secretive group that makes all personnel decisions and effectively runs the club from Russian president Vladimir Putin's native city.

Gazprom have also come under heavy attack in the media for electing to sign expensive foreign players instead of home-grown stars.

"What were they thinking?" asked popular MK broadsheet sports editor Alexei Lebedev.

"Are they simply not aware of the good old Russian word, 'the collective'? Do they not know what a happy environment is or how they should try to keep it?"

Russian television sports commentator Vasily Utkin said he believed in Denisov's sincerity but not in the legitimacy of what he did.

"Denisov is being sincere -- and he is being very, very stupid," Utkin wrote in his blog. "He does not understand that for the past three days, he has done nothing but ruin the team."