By Manuel Veth –
With two games gone, Russia have been far from impressive at this year’s World Cup. Although the country are not considered serious contenders, with Capello himself stating that the tournament in Brazil is only the starting point for constructing a competitive team for the Russia 2018 World Cup, the performances, never mind the results, have disappointed many, with the 2014 edition of Sbornaya leading the criticism.
Brazil 2014 has been indeed spectacular with the tournament on track for being one of the highest scoring World Cups of all time. Yet Russia have managed just a solitary goal in their first two games against South Korea and Belgium. In a tournament in which teams have played with unbelievable pace, and with most sides somewhat surprisingly attempting to outscore the opposition rather than opting to play defensively, Capello’s football looks prehistoric in comparison.
Capello’s Sbornaya: A Football Empire in Decay
Regardless of what happens in Brazil, it appears likely that Fabio Capello, who will be in charge of Russian for the next four years, is trying to construct a team that is ready to compete for international football’s greatest prize when the country hosts the 2018 World Cup. And while Russian/Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov has called the manager, who reportedly earns US$12.2 million a year, the strongest member of the squad, his style of football has been wholly unimaginative during the tournament thus far leaving some to question the appointment and outlay made for the Italian.
For instance, Capello’s starting eleven has featured Aleksandr Kokorin, who has played as a lone striker, with the young Dinamo Moscow midfielder looking lost in an unfamiliar position.
Meanwhile, Capello’s habit of bringing on Aleksandr Kerzhakov as a “super-sub” towards the end of games, which produced Russia’s only goal against South Korea in Brazil, is, in spite of this, becoming a somewhat predictable method, with his purely defensive football formula based largely on the Italian catenaccio proving tiresome for many Russian football followers.
Capello has called for structural changes to Russian football, including the expansion of the Russian Premier League from 16 to 18 teams, in order to increase the pool of Russian talent in the top division. He has also called on foreign players to accept Russian citizenship in order to be eligible to play for Russia and, at the same time, for a reduction of foreign players in the Russian Premier League; currently clubs are allowed to field seven non-Russian citizens – a number that will be reduced to six by 2015.
Capello’s hopes to improve Russia’s striking shortcomings by importing young Brazilian strikers for the 2018 World Cup demonstrate that the Italian has not identified the root problems of Russian football – which is the lack of Russian players challenging themselves in Europe’s toughest leagues. As a result the Sbornaya for the World Cup in Brazil is entirely made up of players from the Russian Premier League.
Yet the reduction of “legionnaires”, as foreign players are called by the Russian media, in the Russian Premier League has done little to help the Russian national team; it could even be argued that it has had the opposite effect regarding in particular the development of young Russian players.
Oligarchs and state corporations predominantly own Russian clubs, with these owners willing to spend exorbitant prices on their football toys in order to hurriedly compete in European competitions (to expedite success for these ‘benefactors’ is key as power/favour is rarely an infinite luxury in Russia). For instance, in the winter of 2012 the Russian club Zenit, which is owned by Gazprom, spent £64 million on the Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel (a starter for Belgium in its defeat of Russia in Brazil), and the Brazilian striker Hulk alone.
The result of reducing the amount of foreigners a club can field in Russian football has driven up the prices of talented Russian players. As the Ukrainian journalist Aleksandr Tkach explained to me, Russian youngsters who make superstar wages now are lacking the motivation required for improving themselves accordingly.
One example of this is Aleksandr Kokorin, who was sold by Dinamo Moscow to Anzhi Makhachkala for €19 million in August 2013. Within one month Kokorin had returned to Dinamo after both clubs underwent ownership restructuring. It is believed that Kokorin and his agent earned handsomely during both transfers, with the player’s development markedly stagnating since returning from the Dagestani-based club.
Another young player who has been struggling to make his mark with the national team is Alan Dzagoev despite being one of the few highlights of Russia’s flat 2012 European Championship campaign. Taking into consideration Dzagoev’s high wage at CSKA Moscow, and the fact that the Red Army team are willing to sell only for an exorbitant transfer fee, a move abroad has yet to materialize for the young Beslan-born midfielder.
Leaving Russian – the Great Leap Forward
Countries with relatively weaker leagues, such as France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, have embraced the fact that they have become “developing leagues” by selling their talent abroad and replacing the void with new home-grown talent. Russian must follow suit, with the proposed reduction of foreigners not the long- or even medium-term solution. Instead, it has served to drive the prices up for local talents, as they are now regarded as a greater commodity with the number of foreign players limited, which helps ensure that players like Kokorin and Dzagoev remain in Russia in their early twenties, rather than making the necessary step to play abroad.
The Russian Football Union should take note of the innovative football played under their pervious coach Guus Hiddink. Furthermore, there has to be more initiatives by Russian clubs to produce players through academy systems, similar to those in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Capello’s idea to supplement the Sbornaya with foreign players who are willing to take Russian citizenship is unimaginative and arguably unnecessary considering the size and wealth of the Russian Federation. Moreover, his attempt to structure a side which embraces the defensive catenaccio system may highlight his archaic worldview of modern-day football, on the day the Italians defended themselves out of the World Cup against Uruguay.
Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus