With Cold War 2.0 looming, and the World Cup 2018 story becoming more intriguing by the day, it was reassuring, in a perverse way, that something as “down home” as “Crowdfunding” proved to be the catalyst for the downfall of Fabio Capello in Russia.
Although football fans have been calling for Capello’s head for some time, his imminent departure is a blow to Russia in their attempt at luring a high-profile manager to forge a World Cup-winning team. With only three years to the big show, Russian football officials must be panicing right now, especially as that old bare-back rider, Vladimir Putin, will be carefully eyeing the situation in Moscow’s Narodnaya Street.
The writing was on the wall for Capello after Russian Football Union (RFU) President Nikolai Tolstykh was voted out of office. Tolstykh was heavily criticised for installing Capello as head coach on a lucrative EUR 7m a year deal. The Italian’s contract was somewhat academic, however, as he went seven months without being paid before February this year!
Capello got his money, but only because Arsenal part-owner and Alisher Usmanov apparently stepped forward to pay the debt. This was only a temporary respite for the RFU, however, as in May, Capello’s agent said the wages had been delayed once more. The former England boss could have helped muddy the FIFA waters by making formal complaints, but he didn’t.
Tolsykh’s reign at the RFU was notable for his hard-line approach to racism and violence, but it was also characterised by severe financial problems.The RFU’s debts run to the equivalent of USD 28m while running a cash deficit of more than USD 3m in 2014. Tolstykh claimed that much of the debt was incurred before he came on board and he had always advocated prudent spending.
It all suggests that Russian football is in a deep crisis, with its domestic game declining in appeal – attendances were down 11% in 2014-15 to an average of 10,300 (2014 – 11,600; 2013 – 13,000). Part of the problem is the weather – games are played in late autumn and early spring, which can be uncomfortable, and Russian stadiums are invariably Soviet relics. Often, the pitches are so poor that games have to be shifted to another stadium. Racism at football matches is also a deterrent, with 155 incidents between 2012 and 2014.
The collapse of the ruble has had a profoundly negative effect on the nation’s football clubs, who at one time seemed to enjoy unlimited resources. In 2013, they spent a record EUR 112m in the February transfer window, but two years on, the total was barely EUR 5m. The currency’s devaluation has also impact foreign footballers plying their trade in Russia, forcing clubs to enter exchange rate negotiations with their players. Now overseas players are reluctant to move to Russia because of dwindling salaries. There’s also a proposal by the RFU to implement a 10+15 plan, meaning that clubs will only be permitted to have 10 foreigners on their books going forward.
There was better news recently for the Russian Football Premier League, however, in the form of a new USD 110m three-year TV deal with NTV Plus, but the league’s income is set to fall further as its main sponsor, SOGAZ, will not extend its contract. And at a club level, Spartak Moscow (who finished 6th in 2014-15) have announced a three-year sponsorship deal with Nissan. Doubtless this deal comes nowhere near the backing that Zenit St. Petersburg – champions three times in five years – receive from Gazprom.
As for Capello, was he on a loser from the start? Russia’s recent track record in major competitions is not good, and the most recent setback, a 0-1 home defeat at the hands of Austria in the European Championship Qualifiers, leaves them trailing behind Austria and Sweden. Under Capello they’ve lost just three games since July 2012, but their performance in the 2014 World Cup was tepid to say the least. Russia failed to win a game in their group, drawing with South Korea and Algeria and losing to Belgium.
With the World Cup worrying close and the Euro 2016 campaign going off the rails, the RFU have acted to put the national team under firmer control. The Russian Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, is one of the favourites to take over from Tolstykh, but who will replace Capello? Who will want to? It may be as precarious as the job Cesar Luis Menotti had to do under the Argentine Junta in 1978!