Dzagoev: the future of Russian football or singer with the Arctic Monkeys?

by Conor McStay

Saturday saw the curtain raising fixture in the Russia football season; the Super Cup, being played out. The result was a surprise 2-0 victory for Rubin Kazan over Zenit St. Petersburg.  The league begins a week after this; however the return of club football to Russia may disguise the crossroads that Russian football finds itself at, both internationally and domestically.

With the European Championships seeming like an age ago, it may be easy to simply ignore the fallout of the failure to qualify from group A. First of all, this tournament must be the last for Russia’s “golden generation”.  Obviously, this tournament will be the last for the likes for Roman Sharonov, Ignasevich, Zyryanov and Semshov, who are the wrong side of 32. and if Russia do get to the 2014 World Cup, then it surely will be the swansong of Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko. It’s easy to point out who will retire, the hard part is pointing out who will come into the side. Arshavin’s heir could, and probably will be, Alan Dzagoev. The 21 year old CSKA Moscow player looked like he has the potential to justify the hype surrounding him, the question is now a combination of whether he has the mental capability to live up to his potential (he is seen to have a side where he reverts to a shy, almost introverted person with a lack of confidence which betrays his undoubted talent) and what team he continues his development with (Spurs have been linked with a move, which could bring mixed results, as seen by a lack of playing time for Krancjar and Piennar, or even the meteoric decline in Andrei Arshavin’s form from 2008). Fortunately, the draw for the 2014 World Cup qualifying group was a relatively generous one, which will give Fabio Capello a greater opportunity to bring fresh blood into the team with one eye on the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in Russia.  Expect to see the likes of Taras Burlak, a 22 year old defender plying his trade at Lokomotiv Moscow, Oleg Shatov and Maksim Kannukov (from Anzhi and Zenit respectively) brought into the team by then, if their form for the Russian under 21 team is anything to go by.

Behind the scenes, Capello will not find the same luxuries that came with the England job. Yes, he’s got the wage, believed to be around €10 million a year but beyond this he finds an organisational wilderness. The Russian Football Union is outsourcing Capello’s wage primarily to the billionaire owners of Anzhi and Spartak Moscow, which is understandable if rumours that they are 800 million roubles (£16 million) in debt are to be believed. Coupled with the lack of top class training facilities (which are under construction for the 2018 World Cup) and a lukewarm relationship with fans, due to Euro 2012 ticket policies and a series of massively unpopular friendlies (against Iran in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, both in 2011), Capello’s job of trying to build a team capable of giving a good account of themselves in either 2014 or 2018 World Cups is brought more sharply into prospective. Finally, bowing to pressure from Russian League clubs, the RFU has increased the quota of foreign players allowed in the starting XI from 6 to 7. To suggest this move was influenced by the bigger clubs, who have a financial leverage over the RFU, is not ridiculous. The already small catchment of players with the opportunity to have the ability to play at international level, who also play in the Russian league, will now surely get smaller. This, combined with the failure of Russians moving abroad to properly adjust to a new league (Kerzakhov at Sevilla and Bilyaletdinov at Everton spring to mind) paints a worrying picture for the future of Russian football.

Domestically, The Russian Premier League reflects society in the gaps between the teams which ‘have’ and those which ‘have not’. The most publicised of the richer teams is Anzhi Makhachkala, owned by billionaire Suleyman Kerimov and boasting Samuel Eto’o, Christopher Samba and ex-Chelsea player Yuri Zhirkov in an increasingly high profile squad. This year they will be competing in Europe for the first time in ten years, and could be outside shots for the Europa League. Despite their rising reputation, breaking the monopoly being gained on the title by Zenit St. Petersburg will ultimately be beyond them. Zenit, now becoming Champions League regulars after winning the Europa League are (if it’s possible) quietly rich. Backed by gas giants Gazprom, they’ve spent big money in the past on bringing in Luciano Spalletti as coach, Bruno Alves from Porto and Danny from Dynamo Moscow. More recently, they’ve been linked with big money moves for Aiden McGeady, Christian Eriksen and Milos Krasic for fees up to £20 million, which is a drop in the ocean for a club owned by a company with an income in the billions. Add to this the four big teams from Moscow (CSKA, Lokomotiv, Dinamo and Spartak) and Rubin Kazan from the east of the country, then the top half of the Russian Premier League shows how open the fight for European qualification will be this year, with all of these teams being able to take points from each other.

Whilst it is easy to only look at the glamorous teams of the Russian Premier Division, this would only be half the battle. In a story neglected by the majority of the British press, FIFPro (the worldwide players’ association) released a document called ‘Black Book Eastern Europe’. Unsurprisingly, it did not make for light reading. FIFPro interviewed 3,357 professional footballers across 12 different countries in Eastern, Southern and Central Europe – 1,290 of these players admitted that their salaries were not paid on time and 55% of this number had been approached to fix a match. The survey also revealed that over 1 in 10 players interviewed had been forced to train alone by their club. Of the interviews that took place specifically in Russia (177 of the 3,357), over 15% of players admitted not receiving their wages on time. These figures are open to a lot of interpretation, as from December 2011 there have been 5 clubs in the top two divisions have openly admitted to having trouble balancing the books (this doesn’t include the two clubs who are now defunct) however they did not specify if this included paying wages. Of the top two divisions in Russia, eight out of the 36 teams (22%) have publicly declared that they cannot pay wages in time, realistically this figure is greater. In leagues below this there is the presence of match fixing, estimated to be at around 40%, as players seek to get a guaranteed income.  There have been a lot of numbers here but the one stands out is the number zero. Of the 177 players based in Russia who were interviewed, not a single one agreed to be interviewed in person by their union, as relinquishing their anonymity would lead to investigation against them.

Russian football now finds itself at one of its toughest times. The “Golden Generation” is disbanding and the failure of 2010 (failing to qualify for the World Cup) and 2012 overshadowing the free-flowing play of 2008. The new blood will begin the qualifying phase for 2014 as one large group, as opposed to being phased in over time. The players that are brought in may not even be good enough to start consistently at club level, and with a World Cup in Russia edging into view a talent vacuum could make Capello work for every cheque. Domestically, the bigger teams will find the biggest challenges in juggling their European adventures with their league form as they try to shift the balance of footballing power in Europe to the east in a bid to attract better players. As for the teams below them, it seems they face one goal daily, and that is to survive.