OVER the past couple of weeks, Russia’s Spartak Moscow were ushered out of the UEFA Champions League and Sochi and Rubin Kazan eliminated from the UEFA Conference League. While Spartak are able to seek refuge in the Europa League, the others go back to their domestic football programme to consider what might have been. Meanwhile, 2021 champions Zenit are still in the Champions League and Moscow’s Lokomotiv will compete in the Europe alongside Spartak.
For a country that is the world’s largest, with 145 million people, Russia’s football seems pretty dismal. True, Zenit are Champions League regulars, but they do have the mighty Gazprom behind them. Of the current Premier League constitution, 10 clubs have some form of state-ownership and six are privately-owned (CSKA, Spartak, Rubin, Sochi, Dynamo and Krasnodar). Some clubs are still burdened by the Soviet legacy of local government control, which brings with it financial and bureaucratic hurdles. It is such a varied mix that nobody ever talks about even playing fields in Russia, it is the survival of the fittest and at the moment, Russian football doesn’t look healthy.
There is, of course, a cloud hanging over Russian sport in the form of a ban that will prevent the nation from playing in the 2022 World Cup under their own name. If they do manage to qualify, and it is by no means a certainty, then they will have to play under a neutral flag, whatever that means. Russia are currently 41st in the FIFA rankings. In July, they appointed Valery Karpin as their coach in a bid to secure a place in Qatar in some shape or form. If he fails, he may not be in the job for long.
Russian clubs, in terms of financial strength, should be in better shape. In 2019-20, the combined income of Russia’s clubs totalled € 877 million, which was more than Turkey, Netherlands and Portugal, the other leading leagues outside the big five. It should also be noted Russia’s economy is the fifth largest in Europe.
Like many leagues, the gambling industry has shown a liking for Russian football and around half the clubs in the Russian Premier League have some connection with betting companies. Others are sponsored by the oil or gas sector or financial services, such as Dynamo Moscow (VTB Bank).
The new president of the Russian Football Union, Aleksandr Dyukov, has a nine-year plan to energise Russian football. He talks of better club participation in Europe and improved rankings for the national team. But the problems surrounding Russia are manifold, not least the very restrictive foreign player limits, which might have had honourable intentions but merely make Russian teams uncompetitive. Dyukov is not an advocate of the limit, which currently allows clubs to have eight foreigners in their squad.
Removing the limit will bring Russia more in line with the rest of Europe, but clubs also need to benefit from overseas investment and move away from state ownership. Furthermore, they need to monetise their academies to produce a conveyor belt of talent that can be developed at home for their own teams – thus avoiding expensive transfer fees – or sold in the market. Many clubs across Europe, notably in Portugal and the Netherlands, have become very adept at player trading – Russia is in the same bracket as these countries and could become a major nursery for training and nurturing young talent. At present there are fewer than a dozen Russian players in the top five European leagues, while most of their exports go to Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan. In total, there are under 200 Russians playing abroad, lower than countries like Ukraine and Croatia.
There is an argument that the globalisation of football has created so many imbalances, but it is either a case of join the party or be left out in the cold. At present, Russia is trailing behind, but it has the raw materials to become a force in football, as the old Soviet Union was when it was at its peak. But it will surely need nine years to get it right, for huge units take their time to turn. With its vast population, enthusiasm for football and strong heritage, Russian football should be in a far better place. Will anyone be patient enough for the long haul?