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St. Petersburg communists ask Putin to save Zenit

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has waded into the debate about what critics call profligate spending in domestic football, in particular regarding wealthy club Zenit St Petersburg.

Russian champions Zenit have been embroiled in an internal crisis in the past few days, with several senior players apparently unhappy after the club splashed out more than $100 million on Brazil striker Hulk and Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel just before the transfer deadline.

Zenit demoted captain Igor Denisov to the reserve team on Sunday after he refused to play, issuing an ultimatum to renegotiate his contract. Leading striker Alexander Kerzhakov was also demoted for "improper behaviour", the club said.

Putin, a St Petersburg native, said Zenit, bankrolled by Russian energy giant Gazprom, were spending the company's money rather than that of the state.

"I also complain sometimes. I would like to note that it's the companies that buy the players and not the government," he told local officials on Tuesday.

"But fans also want to see world stars, not those who are on the wane but those who are at their peak."

On Wednesday, St Petersburg communists got in on the act, asking Putin to save their club and replace Zenit's Italian coach Luciano Spalletti with a taskmaster from North Korea.

"We have an explosive situation at Zenit and the whole city of St Petersburg," the St Petersburg branch of the Communists of Russia party wrote in an open letter to Putin, posted on their website (www.kplo.ru). The party is separate from Russia's main Communist Party and its local branch.

"It's obvious, the team is out of control, there are internal squabbles between the players fighting over who gets bigger pay," the letter said.

"It's hard to distinguish between right and wrong in this open conflict - they are all being ugly, egoistic and greedy: Denisov, Kerzhakov as well as the outlanders Hulk and Witzel, who could never become part of our city's identity."

The communists also lashed out at Spalletti, who has led Zenit to two consecutive Russian league titles since arriving in St Petersburg in December 2009, saying he was used to a lavish lifestyle.

"What Zenit need is a tough taskmaster from the DPRK where the sport is part of a daily struggle," it said in a reference to North Korea.

Zenit declined to comment on the letter when contacted by Reuters on Wednesday.

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