Saul Pope –
For anyone who can understand Russian and loves football as I do, there is an excellent show from Radio Mayak for you. ‘Masters of Sport – Football’ appears three times per week and is hosted on one of these times by the brilliant Yuriy Rozanov. A weekly guest is the effervescent (and sometimes cantankerous) Yevgeniy Lovchev; other former players interviewed recently include Dmitriy Bulykin, Ruslan Pimenov and Andrey Kanchelskis.
Callers to ‘Masters of Sport’ and its guests have been asked for their “prescription” to treat the ailing Russian national team. Below I look at some of the ideas put forward:
“Disband the national team, and use the money saved to develop youth football.”
A petition to this effect has 750,000 signatures at the time of writing—some Radio Mayak callers supported it, although disbanding the national infrastructure will not happen and would be unwise. Russia fell short of expectations by not getting out of the group at Euro 2016—but not that far short. Getting to the round of sixteen would have probably been the side’s limit, so removing the entire structure would represent an overreaction.
It would be easy to dismiss the petition as a largely emotional response that will prove embarrassing in six months—but this isn’t the case. The petition speaks more widely of dissatisfaction with those who run football in Russia, where there have been plenty of grand strategies, changes to foreign player limits and significant sums of money spent since Euro 2008, but no progress to show for it.
“Change the squad completely and start afresh.”
Certainly a tantalizing idea, but there just aren’t players waiting in the wings to replace the current side. The only position where this might be possible is goalkeeper but, though there are several strong keepers that could replace Igor Akinfeev, he was perhaps the only player to come out of Euro 2016 with any credit.
Much has been written about Russia’s problem at center back where there seems to be nobody near matching the (reasonably high) standards of the ageing Vasily Berezutsky and Sergey Ignashevich. When speaking on the show, former Lokomotiv Moscow and Dinamo Moscow winger Ruslan Pimenov claimed both players were disappointed that no other defenders were “treading on their toes”. Elsewhere, there are also limited options, particularly up front—it’s no coincidence that Leonid Slutskiy only took three forwards to Euro 2016.
Changing the squad completely, might feel right to fans at the present time, but it would be both an unfair and counterproductive move—better to stick with the current side (with a few new names) and look to evolve them in the lead-up to 2018.
“Build a new team with players from the FNL [Football National League].”
Again, this is an idea that on an emotional level sounds good. Scrap the team made up of the privileged elite and replace them with the scrappers from Russia’s second tier (the Football National League). These are players up against it, not just because of the huge amounts of travel involved in the FNL but also because of the financial instability in the league: almost every year FNL sides disband, and wage delays are not uncommon. The gulf between them and the Premier League elite is embodied in comments from FNL side Sibir Novosibirsk’s Aleksandr Makarenko about Pavel Mamaev and Aleksandr Kokorin’s recent €250,000 champagne splurge in Monte-Carlo: “We don’t even imagine luxuries like Monte-Carlo,” says Makarenko, “I’d behave differently if I did have these opportunities…such behaviour stains all those involved in football.”
So a Russian side made up of FNL players would be doughty, proud and make up a genuine team? Probably all of the above (providing anyone with even a whiff of match-fixing rumor—common at this level—was excluded) but that wouldn’t produce a side that does well in tournaments. There is a considerable gulf between the Russian Football Premier League (RFPL) and the FNL, meaning that whatever the lower league side gave in commitment, it would severely lack in class.
The commitment and guile could be found elsewhere—for example at smaller RFPL clubs. An all-FNL national side is too extreme, but I see little wrong in banishing the likes of Kokorin for a prolonged period and blooding those from less fashionable top-flight teams instead.
“Introduce a wage cap.”
Roman Shirokov, a member of that failed Euro 2016 squad, seems to be the one who’s reignited this debate (funnily enough, he seems about to retire himself). The caller who supported this on Radio Mayak wanted wages for footballers at the same level as factory workers.
The FNL does have a wage cap, but it seems implausible that this would ever be introduced in any meaningful way in the RFPL. Maybe if the idea had been floated twenty years ago, but now things have gone too far in another direction. Most top Russian clubs spend heavily on wages for their stars (to the extent that, in most cases, they’d get paid less were they to move abroad), and would like to continue to do so. A wage cap would have very little support from inside football.
A wage cap may also have unintended consequences. It would encourage many to move abroad, which would shift Russia back to the mid nineties, where one of the biggest issues many complained about was the fact that the best players were leaving the country. And even if they were in a stronger league, this wouldn’t necessarily improve players who are currently coasting on high salaries in Russia, as they would probably end up coasting at a club further west (or south-east, in China) instead.
“Don’t use Kokorin and Mamaev as scapegoats.”
Here, I agree entirely. What Kokorin and Mamaev did was indiscreet and showed a lack of sensitivity—not only because of Russia’s poor performance at Euro 2016, but also because many in Russia are struggling with the economic downturn. On the other hand, a small proportion of exceedingly rich young men will always behave ungraciously and insensitively. Let’s be disappointed, but not pretend it was a complete surprise.
If the focus remains on these two spoilt and, it seems, rather unintelligent young men, we may lose sight of the far deeper problems in Russian football. Banishing Kokorin and Mamaev to their respective reserve teams won’t usher in a new generation of centre backs, nor will it make Spartak Moscow into the engine room for young Russian talent that it once was. The sooner they are back in their first teams (but not necessarily the national team) the better.
“Reintroduce an ‘internat’ system for football.”
This idea came from former Manchester United winger Andrey Kanchelskis; ‘Internat’ translates as ‘boarding school’. Given the vast size of Russia, a boarding school-style option for football talent makes sense, and has also been used successfully in Germany; it also better facilitates the schooling of the whole profession, which seems to be necessary right now.
Kanchelskis liked Sergey Galitsky’s suggestion that the FC Krasnodar academy be used as a model for new internats—although Krasnodar do not currently offer spaces to the whole country. Kanchelskis also pointed out that, while five or six internat academies across the country would be a step in the right direction, it would only be the first step. Graduates would still need clubs to play for at a decent level—and with FNL clubs struggling financially and Premier League sides giving youngsters little attention, it is easy to picture good young players getting caught up in the developmental graveyards that are Russia’s third and fourth tiers.
“Find a new trainer.”
Here, ideas oscillated between the need for a Russian trainer and the need for a foreign specialist. Amongst the suggestions for a Russian trainer, Rostov’s Kurban Berdyev appeared most often. Sadly, the next coaches mentioned were two who have already tried and failed with Russia—Valeriy Gazzaev and Yuriy Semin. One of the few younger Russian options—Stanislav Cherchesov, fresh from a highly successful season in Poland—was put down by many, and witheringly in one case (“We already have a trainer for goalkeepers,”)
Proponents of a foreign manager said this would ensure independence from both the authorities and clubs; there was support for Guus Hiddink—it seems by those whose rose tinted glasses are firmly in place and who ignore his recent unsuccessful positions as manager. Another name mentioned was—believe it or not—Fabio Capello. Despite being fired not long ago from the Russia job, Capello was praised by Pimenov for his ability to command respect and for the way Russia qualified with minimal fuss for the 2014 World Cup. The caller won few friends in the studio with this suggestion, and the recommendation is unlikely to find supporters elsewhere in the country—not least at the Russian Football Union, who may well be making payments to Capello right now as part of his severance package.
“Sort out the foreign player limit.”
More than ever in Russia, there is now support for abandoning the foreign player restriction. Though designed to give more Russia-eligible players a chance by ensuring that a set number of them play at any one time, it instead seems to have encouraged the elite players to coast by guaranteeing their places in starting elevens.
There are concerns that having no foreign player limit would mean more cheap imports from Eastern Europe rather than forcing Russian players to move up a gear. Kanchelskis found a middle ground—no foreign player limit, but restrictions on which players could get a work visa (i.e. only those with recent games for their national team would be eligible). This may work; in theory, Russian players would then be competing only against strong foreign players, and would consequently develop their own game. It would also mean massive upheaval in the short-term—which, considering that the World Cup is on the horizon, makes it unlikely that such a proposal will see the light of day.
So there we have it—a veritable feast of opinions from Russian football fans. The prospect of all-of-the-above happening is quite frightening, but at least some of it makes good sense. Think it over, and then feel free to leave a comment…
Saul Pope has been following Russian football since the mid nineties, and first saw a live game in 1998 (Zenit St. Petersburg vs Shinnik Yaroslavl’). He has been contributing to When Saturday Comes magazine for over a decade, with a particular focus on social, economic and political issues surrounding the game in Russia and, to a lesser extent, Ukraine. He has a particular passion for teams in and around St. Petersburg. A fluent Russian speaker, he graduated from the University of Surrey with a Master’s degree in the language. He lives in the UK, but travels back to Russia on a regular basis. You can follow Saul on Twitter @SaulPope.