Manuel Veth and Tim Bogdachev –
The post-World Cup euphoria continues for the Russian national team. The Sbornaya won both their first game in the UEFA Nations League against Turkey (1-2) and their friendly against the Czech Republic (4-1). Both results, are encouraging and highlight that the World Cup performance was not a coincidence or even one-hit wonder. Ahead of the World Cup youth development, and the lack of Russian youngsters playing in the Russian Premier Liga was one of the main talking points when it came to Russia’s problems on the pitch.
It was rightfully pointed out that Russian talent was not given enough playing time in the Russian top flight. Furthermore, many clubs did not have the infrastructure for talent development. Football clubs in the first and second division, in particular, were blamed for this as were the coaches that were not given enough playing time to young Russian players.
There is, however, an important aspect that has often been overlooked when it comes to youth development in the Russian football: the economic impact of the fall of the Soviet Union.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the impact on youth development
A quick look at the recent history of the Russian national team highlights that there is a distinct cut-off point between the fall of the Soviet Union and performances on the pitch. In 1988 the Soviet Union reached the final of the European Championships in Germany where they were beaten by a brilliant Netherlands side.
Right around that time the Soviet Union was in general at the pinnacle of European football. The Soviet Vysshaya Liga ranked second behind Italy in the UEFA co-efficient rankings, which determined the number of starters in the UEFA Cup.
The Soviet Union underwent an economic and political reform program that would touch every aspect of society, including football, from 1987 onwards. Pushed forward by Mikhail Gorbachev those reforms became known as Perestroika and Glasnost. In a nutshell, the goals of the reforms were to open the Soviet Union to the west and to modernise its industry and economic performance.
The reforms also included football clubs. Teams were now urged to become independent from state financing by becoming membership-based clubs that through the help of investors were not only supposed to get off the state coffers but also manage to run at a profit. It was a reform program that saw some success but only because state-financed teams had the endless resources to develop one of the best talent pools that the Soviet Union had ever seen and which ultimately formed the backbone of the 1988 Soviet national team.
In other words, the Soviet national team that succeeded at the 1988 European Championships was a state-financed national team with almost endless resources. With the fall of the Soviet Union those endless resources, however, dried up and with the privatisation of football clubs and general economic scarcity also came cuts to youth development.
The post-Soviet football experience
Futbolgrad writer and podcaster Tim Bogdachev experienced the post-Soviet football reality first hand. A talented player in Novosibirsk Bogdachev was on the path of becoming a professional player. But financial problems in the lower leagues of Russian football and a lack of resources in youth development that Bogdachev abandoned his dream of playing professional football, and he decided to pack his bags to move to Vancouver, British Columbia instead.
The next part are some of Bogdachev’s experiences while playing football in the early days following the post-Soviet collapse.
“When the Soviet Union broke up 1991 I went to school in 1992, and this is when I started training at our local Spartak Novosibirsk club, and literally, we didn’t have any sponsors, so we didn’t have any gear. The balls that we used were very poor we only had one set of training shirts, which all teams used so if we had training from 8 to 9 pm they would be very sweaty and smelly.”
“We also inherited all the football shirts from the older generation of players. Sometimes we would play with shirts that were too big for us. There was just no money.”
“I remember we used to play on asphalt grounds all the time. I still carry the scars from doing slight-tackles on asphalt grounds, like pure concrete floors, that was the condition we used to train.”
The infrastructure was certainly one problem. Another problem was the size of the country. Clubs like Spartak Moscow, Dynamo Kyiv, CSKA Moscow, Dinamo Tbilisi, to name just a few, were often at the top of a youth development pyramid that included farm teams throughout the Soviet space. Dynamo Kyiv, for example, were able to recruit players from all over Ukraine. They would simply take the best players from a certain region and bring them in once they were good enough for the top club.
The size of the country made youth development expensive
Money was no objective after all. The same is true for the likes of Spartak Moscow and CSKA, who had smaller clubs feeding into their first team all over the Soviet Union. But as Bogdachev explains that changed with the fall of the Soviet Union as all of a sudden players became a commodity that had to be bought from clubs that were no longer connected with another.
For young players in regions far removed from the traditional football centres of the country, this meant that breaking into professional football became much harder. As Bogdachev explains, distance played a role when it came to Russia’s struggles in finding enough talent in the post-Soviet era.
“We had no agents. If you had a very talented player but who grew up in Novosibirsk, Barnaul, Irkutsk, it was pretty much impossible [to break into a top side]. It was perhaps one lucky person that would go to the top level, to one of the Moscow clubs where everything was happening back then.”
“So many talents got lost because they didn’t have proper training and our coaches always had very little money and almost never got paid. We didn’t have any sponsors so our parents, who often didn’t have any money either, would sponsor our trips if he had to play in the Russian national championship.”
“For example, if we had to travel to Moscow, or somewhere else, it was all sponsored by the parents, not the state. The state didn’t have the money and sports wasn’t high on the priority for the government. It was a brand new country after all, and nobody cared about football until 2005, 2006 when the oligarchs started to come in and started to build those schools.”
“I knew all the players around my age group. I know one player two players, who played for Lokomotiv’s youth system and two more, who played for Spartak’s youth system. That’s it. The only player who made it from our age group was Fedor Kudryashov. He plays for Rubin and was part of the Russia side at the World Cup.”
Kudryashov was born in Mamakan, Irkutsk Region and played with and against Bogdachev at the youth level. “He was born in 1987 and from Siberia. Big cities like Krasnoyarsk, Barnaul, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk have quite a big population base, but Kudryashov was the only player from that region, in our age group, who kind off made it to the top level. If you take my generation, you won’t find too many players from Siberia or even outside the big Western Russian cities. There were certain areas that are just underdeveloped.”
Youth development in Russia and the impact on the 2018 FIFA World Cup
The problem was further exaggerated by the fact that the Russian government favoured other sports over football following the fall of the Soviet Union. One of the experiences of travelling to Russia in the early 2000s is seeing massive tennis facilities. It was the time of the Anna Kournikova and Marat Safin the emergence of Russia as a tennis superpower. Manuel Veth remembers visits to Irkutsk where there were tennis academies the size of farms ready to create the next Russian tennis star.
Bogdachev explains that this emergence was due to state resources, however.
“Boris Yeltsin was a massive tennis fan. He used to play himself. That is why we had the Kremlin Cup and players were promoted very well. Money was invested in tennis, and that is why we had players compete for top spots. When Yeltsin died that money dried up a bit and now we don’t have that many players anymore.”
“That is why my generation, I was born in 1984, and this affected anyone born between 1983 to around 1990. Everyone, who started training in the 1990s and late 1990s had this experience – it is a lost generation because of everything that happened with the fall of the Soviet Union. That brings us back to the World Cup. For me, it was outrageous to host the World Cup in 2018. Because the kids that got the proper training they all started in around 2005 and 2006 and those players are now 17, 18 maybe 20-years-old.”
“It is the generation of Golovin and all those CSKA kids and all those players. But for us, we were sort of lost. That is why it was weird that Russia pushed for this World Cup. It came too early. It was only money and the political power. The players that were in their prime for this tournament did not receive the training at the youth level to be successful.”
What came next was the emergence of the oligarchs in the 2000s. When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, he was also urged to invest in Russia’s football infrastructure. It was a new regime. President Vladimir Putin was now in power and although Putin is no football fan the President understood the power of football.
In 2006 Roman Abramovich opened the National Academy of Football, which took over the administration of the Konoplyov football academy near Togliatti. Money was all of a sudden available to find and train players from all over the country. Furthermore, big clubs like CSKA Moscow, Spartak, Lokomotiv, Zenit and Krasnodar started investing in youth academies.
Youth development came too late for the 2018 FIFA World Cup
Those investments have started to show. Krasnodar, CSKA and Spartak have all had reasonable success in the UEFA Youth League. CSKA head coach Viktor Goncharenko has started a rebuild that includes many talents from the academy. Much of the money at CSKA for this season’s budget was generated through the sale of Aleksandr Golovin to AS Monaco.
Born in Kaltan in the Kemerovo Oblast in 1996 Golovin is a Siberian kid. He played for Metallurg Novokuznetsk until 2011 and was then scooped up by CSKA, which was scouting the entire country for talents that could fill their well-funded youth academy.
Golovin was the first of his generation to play at the World Cup. There he was joined by the Miranchuk twins. Both Aleksey and Anton were born in Slavyansk-na-Kubani in Southern Russia far removed from any footballing hotbed. Both were spotted thanks to improved scouting systems by two Moscow clubs, Spartak and Lokomotiv were they played in their youths.
New stadiums, better infrastructure, but at the same time less funding for foreign stars, due to economic sanctions, means that more young Russian players are finding their ways into top clubs.
The three are just some examples of the differences between the up-and-coming generation of Russian football and the generation that learned how to play in the early years following the fall of the Soviet Union. To summarise the World Cup may have indeed come a bit too early for Russia as it will only be a matter of time for a golden generation to emerge.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.
Tim Bogdachev is a lifelong Spartak Moscow fan, and the host of the weekly punk rock radio show Rocket From Russia on CiTR 101.9 fm in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Follow Tim on Twitter @RussianTim61.